A Richland County jury deadlocked Friday night in the retrial of a former Eutawville police chief charged with murder in the 2011 death of an unarmed African-American man.
Trial Judge Brian Gibbons declared a mistrial shortly after 8 p.m., some seven hours after the jury of 10 whites and two blacks began deliberating.
It was the second mistrial for former police chief Richard Combs, 38, in the May 2, 2011 shooting death of Bernard Bailey, 54, outside town hall. In January, an Orangeburg County jury deadlocked in the case.
Earlier in the day, Gibbons instructed the jury it had three choices: to find Combs, 38, guilty of murder, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, or find him not guilty. It could not be learned Friday night how the jury was divided.
The second trial was marked by prosecutor David Pascoe’s stinging public criticism of how the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) handled the initial investigation in the days and weeks after Bailey’s shooting death. It was a rare public criticism of SLED by a top law enforcement official.
In his closing argument Friday to the jury, Pascoe told the jury that SLED investigators didn’t do a thorough job on their investigation of Combs’ shooting and had failed to gather crucial evidence on numerous aspects of the case. SLED gave Combs special treatment because he was a police officer and didn’t bother to check out what he was saying, Pascoe said.
That’s why, Pascoe told the jury, he had to bring in three non-SLED expert witnesses for this week’s trial to offer testimony about facts of the case that SLED failed to turn up and didn’t include as part of its investigative file.
At the first trial, Pascoe did not offer expert witnesses to testify on aspects of the chief’s behavior.
Countering Pascoe in his closing argument, defense attorney Wally Fayssoux told the jury that his own expert witnesses were the ones to heed – not Pascoe’s, who Fayssoux said manipulated the facts.
“We don’t have results-oriented justice in South Carolina!” cried Fayssoux, who described Pascoe’s prosecution team as believing that “winning is more important than the truth.”
In his one-hour summation, Pascoe portrayed Combs as a rogue cop who grossly mishandled two encounters in 2011 with Bailey and ultimately – in the second encounter – shot and killed Bailey without justification and then lied about it.
“He (Combs) decided to be judge, jury and executioner,” Pascoe said, telling the jury that a claim of self-defense Combs was making was baseless.
“You can’t take a human life without clean hands,” Pascoe said.
Calling former SLED Lt. Brian Bolchez by name, Pascoe said Bolchez and SLED never bothered to look at aspects of the case that would have shown Combs needlessly took a life. Instead, they just took the ex-chief’s statements at face value.
“The investigation at that time trusted the defendant’s word without verifying it, and you should never trust without verifying,” Pascoe said. “Everyone should be treated the same at a crime scene.”
Pascoe said SLED waited for five days to interview Combs, and then allowed him to give agents a prepared written statement in his lawyer’s office. “You think they are going to let anybody else shoot someone three times and then wait five days?”
Did SLED mishandle the first investigation? Pascoe asked the jury, before answering his own question with a word he coined: “Ab-so-freaking-lutely.”
Pascoe also said SLED failed to scrutinize an initial encounter between Bailey and Combs where Bailey had come to a traffic stop Combs had made of Bailey’s daughter some six weeks earlier. Combs characterized Bailey’s behavior during that encounter as interfering with a law officer and swore out a warrant for obstruction of justice – a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.
However, a police dash camera and audio recordings of Combs and Bailey during that encounter showed no interference with Combs, Pascoe said. Those recordings were played to the jury during the trial.
Pascoe told the jury Combs had just been hired by the town of Eutawville and intended to make his mark in the town by arresting Bailey on a “trumped up warrant.”
“He was going to make an example out of Bernard Bailey and send a message that you don’t mess with the new chief,” Pascoe said.
In his closing, Combs’ attorney Fayssoux blamed Bailey for walking away from the chief when the chief was trying to arrest him, and putting the chief in a position where he had to use deadly force.
“When he (Bailey) did that, he made the chief make an impossible decision – he made the chief decide, ‘Do I live, or do I die?’” Fayssoux said.
The jury should base its decision on those last seconds before Combs fired – Bailey was in the front seat of his pickup truck trying to leave town hall when Combs inserted himself between the open pickup driver’s door, evidence showed.
When Bailey started to back up, Combs drew his gun and shot Bailey to death, evidence showed.
But the jury heard conflicting testimony on whether the pickup truck was stopped or moving at the time Combs shot Bailey to death.
Combs didn’t expect to be caught in the open front door of Bailey’s pickup as Bailey backed up, so the chief – fearful he was going to be dragged under the truck and die – pulled out his pistol and shot and killed Bailey, Fayssoux said.
Fayssoux blasted the prosecution’s three expert witnesses, saying they ignored crucial facts and had examined the evidence from the first intending to find Combs at fault.
Combs was fired shortly after the shooting. Eutawville paid $400,000 to Bailey’s estate to settle the case.