ORANGEBURG - Final arguments Monday in the trial of former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs painted the fatal shooting of an unarmed man as both "reckless" and an act of self-defense.
A 12-member jury is considering murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. A verdict in the case still had not been reached by 11:30 p.m., eight hours after deliberations began.
Combs, who is white, stands accused in the May 2011 slaying of Bernard Bailey, an unarmed black man 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.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe paced before the jury during closing arguments, a photo of Bailey's lifeless body clutched in his hand.
"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," he said. "I can think of one. Guilty."
Prosecutors have maintained Bailey was gunned down "in an absolutely senseless act of violence." Defense attorneys contend the shooting was an act of self-defense. Combs was stuck in the open door of Bailey's reversing truck when the shots were fired, authorities said.
Pascoe argued that Combs placed himself in harm's way that May morning while attempting to serve a "trumped-up" warrant. More likely than not, he told the jury, Bailey attempted to surrender, possibly raising his hands in the air, before Combs fired a "kill shot" into the center of his chest.
"But he wasn't done," Pascoe said. A second shot was fired into Bailey's abdomen. The solicitor's gaze never left Combs as he described a third bullet that burrowed through Bailey's shoulder and jaw before stopping in his head.
"How much more of an intentional act of violence can you have than taking (a gun) and pointing it at an unarmed man. ... He thought he got away with it because he wears a badge. You prove him wrong," Pascoe said, his voice screeching into a shout. "You let him know he drinks out of the same cup of justice as everyone else."
In his last words before the jury, defense attorney Wally Fayssoux argued that winning became more important to the state than seeking the truth.
"Nobody has denied that (Combs) was being dragged by the truck at the time of the shooting. ... They want to take his liberty, they want to take his life, for doing his duty," Fayssoux said.
Combs faces 30 years to life if convicted on the murder charge. A lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter carries up to 30 years.
The two charges vary in that murder requires evidence of malice on the part of the defendant. Manslaughter suggests the killing occurred in the heat of the moment.
The jury, nine of which are women, seven are black, sent Judge Edgar Dickson a note three hours into deliberations asking to have the difference in the charges explained to them once again. Five hours into deliberations, the jury asked for a definition of reasonable doubt and self-defense. They ordered pizzas and sipped on soda well into the night, but had not reached a conclusion in the case by late Monday.
Defense attorneys called for a mistrial and directed verdict on at least three separate occasions over the course of the trial.
Pascoe "shoved" Combs' service weapon in the ex-chief's face during his testimony Friday and asked how he thought Bailey felt when he found himself on the other side of the gun, Fayssoux told the judge. The act was one of several the attorney said he considered inappropriate on the part of prosecutors.
"It's not a rookie mistake. It's to incite passion. It's to incite prejudice from the jury," Fayssoux said.
Dickson disagreed, saying "for the most part, I think this has been a well tried case."
The jury began hearing witness and expert testimony on Wednesday. The case drew 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.
Besides Bailey, Combs was the only person who had an unobstructed view of the shooting. He told the jury he feared for his life in the moments before he reached for his gun.
"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," he testified.
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.
It all happened too fast for him to recall every detail, Combs responded.