ORANGEBURG - The murder trial of former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs got underway Wednesday with prosecutors alleging that he gunned down an unarmed black man "in an absolute senseless act of violence."
Combs' lawyers didn't dispute that he killed Bernard Bailey in May 2011 during a dispute over a traffic ticket outside their tiny rural community's Town Hall. But they insisted that Combs, 38 and white, acted in self-defense.
Combs faces 30 years to life in a case that has attracted national attention in the wake of other high-profile, police-involved deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Neither side in the Combs case is arguing that race played a central role in his death, but the case has still attracted reporters from The New York Times and other national outlets to a crowded courtroom in Orangeburg.
During his opening statement, John O'Leary, an attorney for Combs, argued the ex-chief fired his weapon to protect himself after a failed attempt to arrest Bailey, a former prison guard, on an obstruction of justice charge. The warrant for Bailey's arrest stemmed from a dispute the men had two months earlier over a ticket Combs had issued to Bailey's daughter for driving with a broken taillight.
The 6-foot-6-inch Bailey stalked off when told he was being taken into custody. Combs chased after him, jumping into the open door of Bailey's truck as he tried to back out of a parking lot at Town Hall, authorities said. Bailey was shot point-blank in the chest, the abdomen and the shoulder during the scuffle that followed.
"We want the truth to come out," O'Leary told the jury, "and we want the entire story to be told. The defendant had a legitimate right to arrest (Bailey) on a legitimate charge. ... If a police officer can't arrest someone on a valid police warrant, our system is in chaos. This could have been resolved in the court system had Mr. Bailey complied with the arrest."
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe argued that Combs "stewed" for months before presenting Bailey with a "trumped-up" warrant. Bailey was then "gunned down in an absolutely senseless act of violence," he told the jury.
"Mr. Bailey never hits or struggles with the defendant. He doesn't have a weapon," Pascoe said. "The defendant, I submit, had no injuries at the scene. But Mr. Bailey gets killed over a broken taillight."
O'Leary challenged the state's position that Bailey was unarmed when he was killed.
"There is a weapon. It's the truck. ... The minute Mr. Bailey put that truck in reverse that was like cocking a gun," O'Leary argued, alleging Combs feared being dragged under the truck and killed. "Is it a tragedy? Oh my God, yes. But it's one that could have been avoided had Mr. Bailey complied."
O'Leary said Combs opened fire as he fell from the truck, in fear for his life.
The 12-member jury heard testimony from multiple witnesses, including Bailey's former neighbor, Christel White, who saw the shooting and Orangeburg County Sheriff's Capt. Lacra Jenkins, who testified Bailey's feet were positioned on the brake at the time of his death.
A paramedic also testified that when he arrived at the scene, Combs denied falling to the ground, had no abrasions and said he wasn't in pain.
An hour later at the hospital, Kelly Kinsey testified Combs told him he had fallen and "was feeling sore all over." Kinsey said on cross-examination however that an adrenalin rush following a stressful incident can sometimes prevent one from initially feeling pain.
In his questions, Pascoe hammered away at Combs' accounts of the incident, prompting objections from the former chief's legal team. That caused the solicitor to jokingly claim Combs' attorneys simply didn't want the jury to hear the truth.
Defense attorney Wally Fayssoux later stated he must have been on the verge of a good question after he, too, was cut off by an objection, this time from the solicitor.
The banter led Fayssoux to move for a mistrial, arguing the state was manipulating the minds of the jury.
Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson admonished both sides before deciding to rule on the motion on a later date.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.