Crime & Courts

Ex-Eutawville chief pleads guilty to lesser charge, will serve no time for killing black motorist

Combs on the witness stand in June
Combs on the witness stand in June FILE PHOTOGRAPH

Ex-Eutawville police chief Richard Combs avoided a prison sentence Tuesday by pleading guilty to misconduct in office, a misdemeanor, in connection with his 2011 fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man.

“Guilty, your honor,” Combs, his face a picture of despair, told Judge Edgar Dickson after the judge read him the misconduct charge, which said the ex-chief used deadly force when it wasn’t necessary.

Dickson then sentenced Combs to 10 years in prison, suspended upon service of five years’ probation and one year in home detention with a GPS monitor. He will serve no time behind bars, a far cry from what he faced with his earlier charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter.

Combs, 38, shot and killed Bernard Bailey, 54, outside city hall on the morning of May 2, 2011. Bailey had gone to city hall to talk to court officials about delaying a trial for a traffic ticket his daughter had received.

The unexpected plea and sentence put an end to a four-year legal saga that included state and federal investigations, a civil lawsuit in which the town of Eutawville paid Bailey’s heirs $400,000 and – finally this year – two criminal trials this year that ended in hung juries.

Combs’ two mistrials attracted wide attention during a year that has seen unprecedented publicity for police officers’ use of lethal force, especially cases involving white officers and African-American suspects.

Combs’ shooting of Bailey, a Wal-Mart manager and former state prison guard, was not as clear-cut as some other police shooting cases. It was not caught on videotape, and some witnesses said the 260-pound, 6-foot, 6-inch Bailey, although unarmed, was resisting arrest in a manner that allowed Combs to claim he had to use his gun.

But during the two earlier trials, prosecutor 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe put up substantial evidence indicating that Combs had violated numerous police procedures before and during his arrest of Bailey, violations that recklessly turned a situation that could have been handled peacefully into an explosive encounter ending in death.

Combs was a rogue cop who “decided to be judge, jury and executioner,” Pascoe told a Richland County jury in June.

Tuesday, in a sparsely populated courtroom on the second floor of the Orangeburg County courthouse, Pascoe characterized the incident in slightly less stark terms.

In shooting Bailey, Combs had shown “a totality of poor judgment” and used excessive force when he didn’t have to, Pascoe told the judge.

If Combs hadn’t pleaded guilty, Pascoe said he was ready to try the case again on Oct. 26.

But Pascoe acknowledged the difficulty of getting a jury of 12 people to agree on a verdict. “In my 20-plus as a prosecutor, I don’t know if I’ve had a more polarizing case.”

Combs’ attorney, Wally Fayssoux of Greenville, told the judge Combs accepts responsibility about a situation that “could have been done differently and he acknowledges should have been done differently.”

But, said Fayssoux, three law agencies – SLED, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice – declined at first to press charges against Combs and but for Pascoe’s determination to go forward, the case would have died. “He prosecuted this relentlessly.”

“If we tried this case five more times, we would have five more mistrials,” Fayssoux said. “But your honor, my client is financially and emotionally exhausted. He has been through four years of not knowing. ... he wants finality not just for himself, but for the community.”

Before pronouncing sentence, Dickson praised Pascoe for pressing the case, which “allowed all the facts to come out.” The judge also commended Combs for accepting responsibility and allowing everyone to have closure.

The first trial was in Orangeburg in January; the second in June in Richland County. In each trial, Combs faced murder charges that would have carried 30 years to life in prison.

In each trial, from three or four jurors who would have voted for acquittal hung the jury, with the majority favoring some kind of conviction for Combs. Jurors also considered whether to convict Combs of manslaughter, which carries a lesser charge than murder.

Pascoe’s determination to get a final jury verdict after two mistrials was in marked contrast to North Carolina prosecutors’ recent handling of a mistrial declared last month in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American college football player in Charlotte by a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer. In that case, after an 8-4 hung jury, the prosecutors announced Friday they would not seek another trial.

Overt racial themes did not play a role in Combs’ shooting of Bailey. Rather, questions revolved around whether the former police chief had used poor judgment and was seeking some kind of revenge against Bailey because, before the shooting, Bailey came to the scene of a traffic stop where Combs had pulled Bailey’s daughter over for a broken tail light. Combs’ attorneys said because Bailey was resisting arrest, he escalated the confrontation.

During the traffic stop, Bailey and Combs argued but were far from coming to blows, and prosecutors contended that Bailey was doing what all fathers would do if they could – be present during a traffic stop involving their daughter. And other police on the scene testified that Bailey’s conduct did not amount to interference with an officer.

After the traffic stop, without telling Bailey, Combs went to a magistrate and swore out a warrant for obstruction of justice, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.

Later, when Bailey went to Town Hall to request a change in the court hearing date on the broken taillight charge because his daughter was away at college, the chief sprung the warrant on him. Bailey, whom witnesses said was stunned, walked out of town hall and went to his truck.

Once Bailey was in his truck and was starting to back up, Combs opened the door and tried to turn off the ignition. The two briefly fought, and Combs shot Bailey twice in the chest, prosecutors said.

During both trials, Combs testified he was tangled in Bailey’s steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey, a lifelong Eutawville area resident, drove away.

Combs, a former Marine with no criminal record, was placed on leave after the shooting. The town dismissed him six months later.

In addition to the issues of police conduct raised by deadly confrontations between white officers and African-American men, the last year has seen other high-profile racial violence incidents with police and others being the targets.

In Texas last month, a white deputy filling his tank at a gas station was shot to death by an African-American man. Accused hate crimes killer Dylann Roof of Columbia in June killed nine African-Americans during a prayer meeting in a Charleston church. Writings attributed to Roof said he wanted to start a race war.

And not all questionable use of force incidents involve race. An investigation is ongoing in the police shooting in Seneca of an unarmed white youth by a white police officer.

In court Tuesday, Bailey’s sister, JoAnn Lawton, told the judge that her brother was “a caring husband, a devoted father, a son who took care of his parents’ needs, and a brother who was always willing to lend a helping hand. ... His children were left without a father who would move mountains for them.”

After court, she said the family was taking the judge’s sentence with relief and a little resignation. “I would have wanted him to get at least one day in jail.”