Originally published on December 7, 2014, at NationofChange.org
A grand jury in South Carolina charged a former police chief with murder this week for gunning down an unarmed black man in a town hall parking lot. The decision was announced a day after another grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer responsible for killing Eric Garner with a chokehold. The former police chief has become the third officer in South Carolina indicted for shooting unarmed black men in recent months.
On May 2, 2011, Bernard Bailey arrived at Eutawville’s Town Hall to contest a ticket issued to his daughter for a broken taillight. Six weeks earlier, Police Chief Richard Combs had pulled over Bailey’s daughter who called her father to the scene. After arguing with Bailey and issuing the ticket to his daughter, Chief Combs obtained a warrant against Bailey for obstruction of justice.
When Bailey appeared at the Town Hall weeks later, Combs began arguing with Bailey again and attempted to arrest him. Without threatening or attacking the police chief, Bailey exited the building towards his truck. As Combs followed him into the parking lot, Bailey entered his vehicle and turned the ignition.
Before Bailey could close his door, Combs reached inside the truck attempting to shut off the engine. According to Combs, he became entangled in the truck’s steering wheel while trying to turn off the ignition. As the truck backed out of the parking space, Combs fell to the ground and pulled out his gun shooting Bailey twice in the chest and once in the shoulder.
“He was probably upset because a black man decided to leave him and he was a law enforcement officer,” said Bailey’s brother, the Rev. Kenneth Bailey.
Combs was placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting and dismissed from the police force six months later. In 2007, the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office had fired him for unsatisfactory performance.
In 2012, Bailey’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Combs and Eutawville. After reaching a settlement earlier this year, the family will receive $400,000 for his death.
After investigating possible civil rights violations, the Justice Department closed their probe in March 2013 without charging Combs. 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe then asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate further into the incident and won a grand jury indictment against Combs for misconduct in office in August 2013.
On November 25, Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson denied a motion by Combs’ lawyer requesting immunity from prosecution under South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law. Judge Dickson stated that Bailey had not posed a threat to the public and Combs failed to show that he was without fault by escalating the incident.
“There was no need for Mr. Combs to act as he did on May 2, 2011, when Mr. Bailey refused service, as Mr. Combs expected would happen,” said Judge Dickson. “Mr. Combs should have allowed Mr. Bailey to leave and enlisted the assistance of other officers or served the warrant at court as he originally planned.”
By rejecting the “stand your ground” request, the judge opened the door to a grand jury decision to charge Combs with murder. The grand jury made their decision on the same day that another grand jury declined to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo with the death of Eric Garner.
“We don’t know what brand of justice they served in Ferguson. We don’t know what brand of justice they’re serving in New York City,” said Carl Grant, attorney for the Bailey family. “But here in South Carolina, we believe in the jury system and we believe in what the grand jury has brought us.”
In August, North Augusta Public Safety Officer Justin Craven was charged with misconduct in office for gunning down a 68-year-old unarmed black man named Ernest Satterwhite. After a slow-speed chase that ended in Satterwhite’s driveway, Officer Craven ran up to Satterwhite’s car door and shot him to death. The prosecution sought to charge Craven with voluntary manslaughter, but the grand jury indicted him on a misdemeanor instead. Satterwhite’s family has filed a lawsuit alleging Craven had disobeyed orders and lied about Satterwhite trying to grab his gun.
In September, South Carolina Trooper Sean Groubert was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature for shooting Levar Jones. Caught on dash cam video, Groubert asked Jones for his driver’s license before firing several rounds at him. Jones was complying by reaching inside his vehicle to show Groubert his ID when Groubert shot him. Jones was shot once, but survived the incident.
Combs is the third officer in South Carolina charged with shooting an unarmed black man in recent months. His trial is scheduled for January.