Former police chief facing retrial in killing of black man

Jun 14, 2015, 7:00 AM

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — When a South Carolina jury first heard the case of a former small town police chief who shot and killed an unarmed black man, the trial lasted six days and the jurors deliberated for 12 hours before telling the judge they had deadlocked.

On Monday, Richard Combs, the white former police chief of Eutawville, will be retried on a murder charge in the May 2011 death of Bernard Bailey. Bailey died outside the small community’s town hall, which also houses the town’s one-man police department.

At the time of Combs’ indictment last December, the case drew comparisons to the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of a black by police officers in New York City.

At Combs’ first trial in Orangeburg in January, his attorneys had unsuccessfully argued it should be moved. They cited publicity surrounding the case after weeks of protests nationwide over the killings of blacks by white law officers, adding it made it impossible to get a fair trial there.

Since then, there have been other similar cases which have drawn headlines, including the April shooting of Walter Scott, who is black, by a white North Charleston police officer. That shooting was captured on cellphone video.

Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson this month approved a defense request for a change of venue, moving the trial to Columbia in Richland County about 35 miles away. The case will be heard by Circuit Judge Brian Gibbons of Chester with jury selection set to begin Monday.

If convicted of murder, Combs could face 30 years to life without parole. During the first trial, Dickson also allowed the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter. Any conviction on that charge could be punished by two to 30 years in prison.

According to testimony from the first trial, Combs stopped Bailey’s daughter seven weeks before the shooting for having a broken taillight on her car. She then called her father and Bailey came to the scene.

Later Combs secured a warrant for obstruction of justice, alleging Bailey had interfered with the traffic stop. The chief attempted to serve it when Bailey came to the town hall the day before his daughter’s trial.

Witnesses said Bailey then walked out of the building. Combs followed and — the defense said — he got caught in the open door of Bailey’s truck as Bailey tried to drive off. Fearing he would fall under the truck, Combs fired three times in self-defense because he had no pepper spray or stun gun, according to the defense.

Prosecutors argued that Combs was trying to serve a trumped-up warrant, the truck was stopped and he could have stepped away from the door.

Combs was placed on leave after the shooting and the town let him go six months later.

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Former police chief facing retrial in killing of black man