New trial begins for former South Carolina police chief who shot black man

By Harriet McLeod
1 / 3

Former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs sits with lawyers on the second day of testimony in his trial for the murder of Bernard Bailey in Orangeburg

Former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs sits with lawyers on the second day of testimony in his trial for the murder of Bernard Bailey in Orangeburg, South Carolina January 8, 2015. REUTERS/The Times and Democrat/Larry Hardy/Pool

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A second trial began on Monday for a former South Carolina police chief charged with murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, one of a series of cases that has raised questions about U.S. law enforcement's use of lethal force against minorities.

The first trial of Richard Combs, a former police chief of tiny Eutawville, ended in January with the jury unable to reach a verdict after 12 hours of deliberations.

Jury selection in the retrial of Combs, who is white got underway on Monday, according to local media reports.

Combs faces a sentence of 30 years to life in prison without possibility of parole if convicted on the murder charge.Combs, then new to the job, fatally shot Eutawville resident Bernard Bailey, 54, in the town hall parking lot in 2011 after they argued and scuffled over a traffic ticket issued to Bailey's daughter.Judge Edgar Dickson recently agreed to move the second trial to the state capital, Columbia, at the request of defense attorneys. The first trial took place in Orangeburg, about 30 miles west of Eutawville, home to about 300 people.

A grand jury indicted Combs on the murder count last December. The decision came after grand juries in New York City and Missouri decided against bringing charges against other white police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men. Those decisions sparked protests across the country over police treatment of African-Americans.

Combs had been indicted in August 2013 in connection with the shooting on a misconduct in office charge.On the day of the shooting, Bailey, a former prison guard, came to the town hall to speak with the police chief about the traffic ticket issued to his daughter at an earlier date, prosecutor David Pascoe said at the first trial.Instead, Combs tried to serve Bailey with an arrest warrant for obstructing justice at the scene of his daughter's traffic stop, Pascoe said.As Bailey headed back to the parking lot, Combs followed. The chief tried to prevent Bailey from driving away and fired three shots, striking Bailey in the chest, abdomen and head, Pascoe said.Pascoe argued that Combs shot Bailey out of malice.

"Bernard Bailey was murdered for a broken tail light,” he said. "He was killed because of that man’s poor judgment.”

Defense attorney John O'Leary told jurors in January that Combs feared for his life when he found himself wedged in the open door of Bailey's truck, which the lawyer called a dangerous weapon."If Mr. Bailey had actually complied with the arrest, we wouldn’t be here today," O'Leary said. "The minute Mr. Bailey put that truck in gear, that was basically cocking a gun."

Pascoe could not be reached for comment on the second trial. 

Combs was the first of two former South Carolina policemen to be indicted for murder in the killings of unarmed black men in the past year.Michael Slager, a former North Charleston police officer, was indicted last week in the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, 50, who was running away from him after a traffic stop on April 4. The incident, which was partially captured on a bystander's video, sparked a national outcry.

(Editing by Frank McGurty, Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)