Mistrial for White Police Chief in Unarmed Black Man's Death

By Julissa Catalan

A South Carolina judge declared a mistrial in a 2011 case in which a white police chief was charged with the murder of an unarmed Black man.

Shortly after 2 a.m., Judge Edgar Dickson announced the mistrial decision after the jury failed to agree on a verdict.

Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs shot and killed Bernard Bailey back in May 2011, although murder charges were not brought against him until last month.

Combs was originally charged in August 2013 with misconduct in office. The indictment accused Combs of unnecessarily using deadly force. Bailey’s attorneys announced they planned to use the “stand your ground” defense, but the judge denied the use of that defense on Nov. 25, 2014. Prosecutors then filed murder charges in December.

Combs was indicted on Dec. 3 by a grand jury—the same day a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict Daniel Panteleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

The Orangeburg County jury deliberated over three options: Combs could have been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter, or he could have been acquitted of all charges.

Late Monday night, the jurors told the judge they were unable to reach a decision. The judge went on to read the jurors the Allen Charge—instructions that encourage jurors who are undecided or on the minority end of the vote to reconsider their decision.

Though members of the jury asked for the proper definitions of words like malice, manslaughter, murder and reasonable doubt, the jury reminded undecided as a whole. The final vote was 9-3 in favor of a guilty verdict, although it’s not known if the charge being considered was murder or involuntary manslaughter.

As expected, both the defense and prosecution were very disappointed with the lack of verdict—members of the Bailey family reportedly left the courtroom in tears, while First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, the prosecutor in the case, said he will be pursuing a retrial on the murder charge.

Combs and Bailey had their first encounter in March 2011 after Combs ticketed Bailey’s daughter Briana for a broken tail light.

Briana called her father from her cell phone while being pulled over. Bernard Bailey, a retired corrections officer, arrived on the scene shortly after.

According to Combs, Bernard Bailey arrived on the scene in a combative manner, which supposedly prompted Combs to later obtain a warrant against him for obstruction of justice.

But prosecutors proved Combs’ recollection to be untrue. Dash-cam footage—which jurors asked to review multiple times—showed that Bailey was far from aggressive, even bidding Combs a cordial goodbye before leaving.

Briana Bailey’s testimony validated the video, as she also said her father was compliant.

On May 2, 2011, Bernard Bailey went to town hall in an attempt to have his daughter’s ticket dismissed.

Per Combs’ testimony, Bailey repeatedly tried to discuss his daughter’s ticket with him but Combs said he would only discuss it directly with Briana. Combs said that is when Bailey became aggravated.

Combs then told Bailey that he had a warrant against him and would be arresting him.

Bailey began to leave the police station as Combs followed him outside.

During closing arguments, prosecutor Pascoe emphasized how unnecessary that move was.

“He had a month and a half to cool off,” Pascoe said, “and he didn’t do it. This wasn’t just a save-face warrant for that night. This was a chief of police who’d been on the job for two weeks and he was going to make an example out of Briana Bailey’s father. He did.”

According to Combs, he attempted to handcuff Bailey by getting into his car.

He also maintained that Bailey put his car in reverse, and that is when he pulled his gun out and shot Bailey three times—because he felted threatened that Bailey would run him over.

“He put the chief in the impossible position that he has to decide does he want to go home to his family or does he want to hope that his truck doesn’t go over the top of him,” said defense attorney Wally Fayssoux. “Does he want to hope he’s not gravely injured Does he want to hope that he’s not killed”

Prosecutors debunked this theory, pointing to the placement of the handcuffs Combs had said he tried to place on Bailey.

If Bailey had reversed, the handcuffs would have been in front of the car. But photos from the scene show the handcuffs beside Bailey’s car—proving that Combs’ pulled his weapon out as soon as he approached the vehicle.

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