COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The family of an unarmed black man shot to death by a white former police chief of a small South Carolina town reluctantly accepted a plea deal on a lesser charge that will give him a year of home detention, but no prison time.
Former chief Richard Combs didn’t like the deal either because he thinks the shooting was justified, but both sides said they were ready to end a four-year ordeal that started in May 2011. Combs had tried to arrest Bernard Bailey on an obstruction of justice warrant after he argued with Combs weeks before about a traffic ticket for his daughter.
“My client is financially and emotionally exhausted,” defense attorney Wally Fayssoux said.
Bailey’s family told Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson that Bailey was a good man who stayed out of trouble and was targeted for arrest by an officer who was on a power trip.
“We have been on a mission of justice,” said Bailey’s sister, JoAnn Bailey-Lawton.
Combs’ guilty plea to the lesser charge of misconduct in office was a good outcome because it punishes him for “a totality of poor judgment,” Solicitor David Pascoe said.
Prosecutors agreed to drop a murder charge against Combs, 38. The murder charge carried a penalty of 30 years to life.
The judge suspended a 10-year prison sentence for Combs as long as he completes his home detention and five years of probation.
Combs stood trial twice on the murder charge, but both cases ended with hung juries.
The jury in the first case voted 9-3 to convict Combs. The jury in the second case voted 8-4 to convict, with four jurors wanting to convict Combs of murder, four wanting to convict him of voluntary manslaughter and four who thought he was not guilty, Pascoe said in a hearing at the Orangeburg County courthouse.
Fayssoux said he thought the juries were leaning even closer to an acquittal for Combs, but didn’t give numbers.
Eutawville, a town of 300 people about 50 miles southeast of Columbia, suspended Combs after the shooting and dismissed him several months later. The town reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement with Bailey’s family.
Bailey was shot after coming to Eutawville Town Hall to discuss his daughter’s ticket. Combs told him he was under arrest. Bailey stormed out and got in his pickup truck and Combs followed, authorities said.
Bailey was shot three times as he backed his truck out. Prosecutors said Combs was trying to arrest Bailey on a trumped up charge, was not threatened and could have stepped out of the way.
Combs testified he was leaning into Bailey’s pickup and had just seconds to react. They said he had no pepper spray or stun gun, which left him no option but his gun. He was the only officer in the town.
Combs had been a police officer for several jurisdictions for 10 years after serving time in the Marines. He won’t be a law officer again, Fayssoux said.
“He has to completely start over. He was branded a racist,” Fayssoux said after the hearing. “All of that wasn’t true.”
Combs was one of four South Carolina police officers charged with felonies for on-duty shootings in the past year. The officers in the other three cases are awaiting trials.
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