Trial to begin for ex-chief in unarmed black man's death

Combs

The trial of a former Eutawville police chief accused of murder in the shooting of an unarmed black man is expected to get underway Tuesday unless a judge agrees to a defense request to move the proceeding out of Orangeburg.

A grand jury indicted Richard Combs last month in the fatal shooting of Bernard Bailey, who died during a May 2011 confrontation with the ex-chief outside Eutawville's town hall.

The indictment drew national attention, as it came the same day that a New York grand jury declined to charge an officer there who had killed an unarmed black man.

Both decisions came less than two weeks after a grand jury refused to indict a white officer in the death of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo.

Combs, 38 and white, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.

Opening statements in the trial were expected Tuesday after a jury is selected.

But Wally Fayssoux, an attorney for Combs, asked Circuit Judge Edgar Dixon on Monday to have the trial moved from Orangeburg, arguing that intense pretrial publicity will prevent his client from getting a fair hearing.

Fayssoux complained about what he called "the rank inaccuracy of facts" provided to the media about the case, including attempts to inject race into the discussion. He said race played no role in the chief's actions that day.

"Race has nothing to do with anything in this case," he said.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said he's refrained from making statements to the media about the case, unlike some in Combs' legal team. He said one of Combs' lawyer accused him in published reports of trying to make the case about race.

"That's wrong," he said. "And they shouldn't be rewarded for making those kind of comments in the media."

Dixon is expected to rule on the question of venue after potential jurors are asked what they know about the case when jury selection begins Tuesday.

The shooting occurred after Combs tried to arrest Bailey on an obstruction of justice warrant stemming from a dispute the two men had over a ticket Combs had issued to Bailey's daughter for a broken tail light.

The 6-foot 6-inch Bailey stalked off, and Combs chased after him, jumping into the open door of Bailey's truck as he tried to back out of the lot, authorities said. During the scuffle that followed, Bailey was shot twice in the chest and once in the shoulder.

Combs was placed on leave after the shooting and the town parted ways with him six months later.

Concerns over possible civil rights violations in the case led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation.

But after federal officials closed the probe in March 2013 with no charges, Pascoe asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate further.

He then won a grand jury indictment against Combs for misconduct in office, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.

Combs, who remains unemployed, has insisted he acted in self-defense.

Prosecutors, however, said evidence shows Combs used excessive force and was the aggressor, not Bailey, who was trying to get away from him.

Lawyers for Combs have accused prosecutors of trying to leverage discontent over the Ferguson and New York decisions to win the murder indictment against the former chief.

But Pascoe has indicated that a possible murder charge for Combs had been in play for more than a year, and that he had informed Combs' attorneys long ago of his intention to seek an indictment on that charge if the state prevailed in its opposition to Combs' "stand your ground" defense.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.