What Did Richard Combs Do? The South Carolina Police Chief Pleads Guilty To Misconduct For Shooting An Unarmed Black Man
Prosecutors in South Carolina on Tuesday agreed to drop murder charges against 38-year-old Richard Combs, the former police chief of Eutawville, South Carolina, after Combs agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of misconduct in office. Combs had been originally charged with misconduct in 2013 for his role in the shooting death of unarmed black man Bernard Bailey, 54, in 2011. He was finally indicted for murder in December 2014, but a judge in Orangeburg eventually declared a mistrial in June this year after jurors were unable to reach a verdict. Combs' retrial began that same month, and just weeks later, a second judge also declared a mistrial.
Combs' attorneys told reporters on Tuesday that he had filed the plea bargain after learning that he would be subjected to a third murder trial in the coming days. His lawyers added that he was "emotionally and financially exhausted." The latest development marked the end of a sad and distressing four years for the small community of Eutawville.
The case was a tangled and polarizing one. In March 2011, Combs had pulled over Bailey's daughter for a minor tail light violation. Bailey's daughter then called her father, who was a former prison guard, to bring her proof of insurance to the scene. Combs recounted later that when Bernard Bailey had arrived with the documents, Combs had felt intimidated by him, but failed to file any charges at the time. Police documents did not specify why Combs had felt intimidated by Bailey.
Five weeks later, in May 2011, Bailey went to the Eutawville police station (which also functions as the local town hall) to inform the court that his daughter would be unable to make her scheduled court date to argue the traffic ticket, at which point Combs then attempted to serve him with an arrest warrant for obstruction of justice, which he had reportedly been holding onto since the night of the traffic stop. Court records showed that Bailey had become upset and left the building, but as he began to leave in his truck, Combs, who was attempting to stop him from driving off, drew his weapon and fired three times, fatally striking Bailey in the chest, abdomen, and head.
Attorneys later alleged that Combs, the small town's only police officer at the time, had felt threatened after Bailey supposedly tried to back over him in his vehicle, but prosecutors fought back, claiming that Combs had exercised "poor judgment." "Bernard Bailey was murdered for a broken tail light," state prosecutors during Combs' second trial said in June. "He was killed because of that man’s poor judgment."
Defense attorney John O'Leary, however, told jurors a much different story. "If Mr. Bailey had actually complied with the arrest, we wouldn’t be here today," said O'Leary at Combs' first trial in January. "The minute Mr. Bailey put that truck in gear, that was basically cocking a gun."
Whatever actually happened that day was left up in the air after Combs filed his guilty plea on Tuesday. According to a report by the Associated Press, he now faces one year of house arrest and five years of probation for the misconduct charge — and even though Bailey's family agreed to the plea deal, Bailey's brother told reporters it was more about moving on and getting some sort of justice, rather than dragging the case out year after year.
"Let justice prevail, that's all I ask," said William Bailey, Sr., in an interview with Charleston CBS affiliate WCSC on Tuesday. "We will go on because God gives us the strength."