The former police chief of a small Orangeburg County town has now been charged with murder in the death of an unarmed black man three years ago.
WLTX-TV reports Richard Combs was in court to face the new charge on Thursday. He had already been facing a misconduct indictment handed down by an Orangeburg County grand jury last year.
The former Eutawville chief does not dispute that he shot and killed 53-year-old Bernard Bailey outside the town hall in May 2011. But Combs argued the shooting was in self-defense, saying he feared for his life because Bailey was trying to drive away while the officer was in the car door. The case stirred racial tensions in the small town that borders Lake Marion, as Combs is white and Bailey was black.
According to prosecutors, Bailey and Combs got into an argument that year over a broken taillight traffic ticket Combs had written for Bailey’s daughter. Following the confrontation, Combs got a warrant on obstruction charges against Bailey. Prosecutors said Bailey went to the police office six weeks later and Combs tried to arrest him on the obstruction charge. A witness said Bailey angrily returned to his truck and tried to drive off, but Combs followed and reached to pull the keys from the ignition. According to the Orangeburg Times & Democrat report at the time, Combs told a judge last month he was “trapped” in the steering wheel and fired at least two shots as Bailey backed up the truck.
Both the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division initially investigated but did not issue any charges against Combs. Their findings were handed over to the First Circuit Solicitor’s Office in March 2013. The Orangeburg County grand jury handed down the misconduct indictment later that year, citing the unnecessary use of deadly force. Bailey’s family had also reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement against the Town of Eutawville and Combs in 2012.
Combs’ attorneys sought to use the “Stand Your Ground” defense in the trial on that charge. But Judge Ed Dickson denied their motion. Under state law, a failed “Stand Your Ground” defense can be used as an admission from the accused that he shot the victim.
Combs is no longer with the department. Eutawville is a town of slightly more than 300 people that is located roughly 50 miles northwest of Charleston and 30 miles east of Orangeburg.