ORANGEBURG - Three days into the trial of former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs, the question remains whether the embattled ex-cop will tell a jury Friday in his own words what caused him to gun down an unarmed black man in May 2011.
Combs, who is white, stands accused of murder in the death of Bernard Bailey, a former prison guard, during an attempted arrest 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.
The state rested its case Thursday after hearing testimony from Bailey's daughter.
Alleged inconsistencies in the ex-chief's accounts of the slaying also were raised during the day's proceedings.
While discussing with state and defense attorneys a number of motions put forth during the trial, Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson mentioned Thursday morning that Combs had yet to declare in writing whether he intended to testify in the case. That question had still not been settled by day's end as the case continued to attract national attention in the wake of other contentious, police-involved deaths of unarmed black men around the country. Reporters from The New York Times and elsewhere have traveled to this crowded courtroom in Orangeburg to see how justice in such cases is meted out in the Deep South, which has had a long and complicated history with issues of race and law enforcement.
At least three witnesses who viewed the shooting from varying vantage points have taken the stand. But the only person still alive who had a clear, unobstructed view of the incident was Combs.
Reading from a written statement that was provided to the State Law Enforcement Division four days after the May 2011 shooting, SLED Lt. Charles Ghent quoted Combs as saying Bailey used a firm arm to pin the ex-chief against the door jamb of a moving truck shortly before two shots were fired into Bailey's chest and abdomen. Combs fired a third shot as he fell to the ground, according to the statement.
"I was scared to death. I thought I would die if I fell," Ghent quoted Combs as saying.
According to the statement, Combs went on to talk of the shooting with a judge who entered the parking lot immediately after the gunfire.
"I had to shoot him, judge. . He was going to kill me. He was dragging me," the SLED agent read.
"Did you kill him?" the judge asked.
"I think so, but I'm not sure," Combs responded. The judge shook his head, then walked away, according to the statement.
Prosecutors tried to prove to the jury that the account was inconsistent with a statement Combs later provided during a pretrial hearing in November 2014.
In that later statement, Combs indicated he fired all three shots at an upward angle as he fell downward toward the truck's tire.
Assistant Solicitor Don Sorenson started to ask Ghent whether Combs' initial account would be consistent with a downward shot. But Ghent responded that he could only testify to what was written in the statement, not the proposed angle of the gunfire.
Briana Bailey, the dead man's now-24-year-old daughter, also took the stand, telling the jury her father was never aggressive nor did he threaten Combs during the March 15, 2011, traffic stop that preceded the deadly shooting.
Dash-cam video showed the two men exchanging words of distrust during the 2 a.m. stop.
"I don't know you," Bailey said.
"And I don't know who you are," Combs retorted.
Briana Bailey testified that she had asked Combs for permission to call her father after she had trouble finding registration and proof of insurance in the vehicle. Bailey arrived at the scene minutes later and walked toward the car. Combs cautiously approached, asking Bailey to stay back.
"I'm on a traffic stop, sir," Combs said to Bailey. "I'm only dealing with one person."
Briana Bailey told the jury her father couldn't figure out why Combs had allowed him to come to the scene if he didn't want him to talk with his daughter.
When Combs did allow Bailey to come near, he popped the car's trunk and fiddled with the taillight, causing it to come back on, Briana said. Bailey had trouble with the light in the past, she said, and had it repaired the day before.
Combs asked Bailey to show an ID at one point during the exchange. Bailey stepped toward Combs with an outstretched hand as Combs took a step back toward his own vehicle.
"'You're backing up, but you're asking me to hand you my ID,'" Briana recalled her father saying.
Combs then asked Bailey if he had something behind his back. Bailey reached back, pulled out a towel, dangled it before Combs, then wiped his face with it, the video showed.
Combs called for backup and three officers from various agencies arrived at the scene before Briana Bailey was allowed to leave. Bailey made his own call to 911 asking for an Orangeburg County sheriff's deputy to respond.
"He wasn't aggressive," Briana Bailey said. "I would call it concern."
Prosecutors rested their case after her testimony, prompting the defense to move for a directed verdict.
"They haven't offered anything that shows my client was excessive or fell below the standard of care that was reasonable for defending himself," defense attorney Wally Fayssoux told the judge. "They haven't even been able to prove that my client displayed the slightest emotion other than patience or professionalism."
The judge denied the request, moving the trial forward to hear further witness testimony from the defense.
Defense witness Preston Avinger, chief of the Elloree Police Department, testified that he advised Combs to file a warrant against Bailey for obstruction of justice after Combs told him of the Eutawville traffic stop. The jury also heard testimony from a second SLED agent who responded to the scene, and two town employees who viewed portions of the dispute between Bailey and Combs from Eutawville's Town Hall.
Former Eutawville Clerk of Court Brittany Dantzler said she heard Bailey and Combs arguing in the chief's office and then saw Bailey storm off toward the parking lot with Combs chasing him. She later saw Combs reaching into the truck as the driver tried to back out. It appeared Combs was trying to shut off the ignition, she said.
She turned to tell another employee that Combs was being dragged by the vehicle. While she was looking away, gunfire sounded, she said.
Combs faces 30 years to life if he is convicted of murder. Testimony is scheduled to resume at 9:15 a.m. Friday.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.