Ex-chief takes witness stand

Richard Combs, the former police chief and sole officer in the small town of Eutawville listens in court, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in Orangeburg, S.C. Combs, who fatally shot an unarmed black man in South Carolina in 2011, is expected to take the stand to testify in his trial for murder. (AP Photo/The Times and Democrat, Larry Hardy)

ORANGEBURG - Faced with alleged inconsistencies in his accounts of how he fatally shot an unarmed black man, former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs told a jury Friday that it happened too fast for him to recall every detail.

"I was scared," Combs told the jury, his voice low but steady. "I can't accurately tell you exactly how something like that feels. I've never been that scared before in my life, and I haven't been that scared since."

Combs, who is white, stands accused of murder in the May 2011 death of Bernard Bailey, an assistant Wal-Mart manager and former prison guard he shot while trying to arrest Bailey on an obstruction of justice charge. The confrontation stemmed from a dispute the men had two months earlier over a ticket Combs had issued to Bailey's daughter, Briana, for driving with a broken taillight.

Prosecutors have maintained that Bailey was gunned down "in an absolutely senseless act of violence." Defense attorneys contend Combs fired his weapon in self-defense because he feared for his life.

Combs, a former Marine, had listened for days as witnesses recounted and dissected his actions.

On Friday, it was finally his turn to tell his version of the events leading up to Bailey's death. Dressed in a black suit and a red tie, Combs, who at times came across as soft spoken, calmly answered questions, making sure to include "sir" in the bulk of his responses.

His repeated use of the word was reminiscent of the near two-dozen times Combs referred to Bailey as "sir" the night of the traffic stop, dash-cam video showed.

Combs testified that the day of the shooting wasn't the first time he felt vulnerable in the presence of Bailey, who stood 6 feet, 7 inches tall.

Combs said he felt threatened and intimidated that night in March 2011 when Bailey dropped in on the traffic stop Combs was conducting on Bailey's daughter.

Combs said he thought Bailey was interfering with the traffic stop and obstructing justice.

He waited two months to secure and serve a warrant on the obstruction charge, he explained, because he needed time to research the statute and seek advice from a judge and a neighboring police chief.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe accused Combs' of being untruthful, asking how he managed to research a statute that didn't exist.

Obstruction of justice is a common-law charge in South Carolina. Pascoe also questioned Combs' interpretation of Bailey's actions.

"Was he obstructing justice when he gave you his ID that you were asking for, Pascoe asked to an unwavering Combs. "Was he obstructing justice when he fixed the taillight you said was broken? Was he obstructing justice when he called 911 because he didn't trust you? Or was he obstructing justice when he said 'Thank you, sir. Have a good night?'"

"I don't recall him saying that part," Combs responded flatly.

"Is it possible you didn't recall a lot of things from that night when you had a judge sign off on that warrant," Pascoe asked, drawing an objection from Combs' attorneys.

Pascoe suggested to the jury that Combs' wanted to make an example out of Bailey.

That choice directly contributed to Bailey's death, Pascoe asserted.

Combs said he was stuck in the doorway of a reversing truck when he fired the shots that killed Bailey. Pascoe attempted to show that Combs' version of events has "evolved" in the years since the shooting, grilling the ex-chief about his attempts to handcuff Bailey, whether the truck was in motion when the shots were fired and whether Combs was still standing or lying on the ground.

"You have to understand, it happened so fast," Combs said. "I can't remember every detail that happened."

Despite prior accounts that suggested otherwise, Combs told the jury that he never fired any of the shots while lying completely on the ground.

The last of three shots that were fired occurred as Bailey "rose up" toward Combs one final time before falling dead, Combs testified.

When asked to describe the way in which Bailey rose at him, Combs struggled to piece together a complete answer.

"Sir, you have to understand, I was scared to death at that point," Combs told Pascoe.

When all is said and done, Combs told the jury, he's confident he did nothing wrong.

"I had a lawful warrant," he said.

Filling a front-row pew in the courtroom, Bailey's loved ones stared straight ahead, showing little reaction to Combs' words.

Samuel Bowser, a police trainer presented by the defense as an expert witness, told the jury he also considered the shooting to be "justified." When questioned by prosecutors, Bowser said he formed that opinion largely based on Combs' version of events.

The jury also heard testimony and watched video from defense witness Bill Williams, an automotive expert. Williams used a truck similar to the one driven by Bailey the day he was killed to recreate the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

He stated with confidence that a person could be run over and killed if "trapped" in the doorway of a reversing truck, as Combs had suggested he was.

"This vehicle is not going to stop until someone shuts the vehicle off or it hits something," Williams said. He later added under cross-examination that a person in Combs' situation would have been "in a battle. ... They're stuck. They either keep up with the vehicle or they're going down."

Williams challenged the testimony of two state witnesses who told the jury they were able to view the shooting from a Dollar General store across the street from Eutawville's Town Hall.

Witness Christel White, who at one time lived near the Bailey family, previously testified that, while at the store, she saw someone's hands go up inside of the truck before the gunfire, though she couldn't tell whose hands they were.

Williams showed the jury photos and video from where the woman would have been standing, saying the truck was too far away for her to clearly see much of anything.

Williams testified that in his expert opinion, Combs shot Bailey while the truck was still in motion. But he admitted under cross-examination that he formed that opinion primarily based on statements provided by Combs.

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.

The trial adjourned for the weekend after the defense rested its case.

Closing arguments are expected Monday. Then, the case will go to the jury of nine women and three men - six black - to decide.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.