COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A white former police chief will have to spend a year under home detention but won’t have to serve any prison time in the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man.
Prosecutors agreed Tuesday to drop a murder charge against 38-year-old Richard Combs, the former police chief of the small town of Eutawville, in exchange for his guilty plea to misconduct in office. The murder charge carried a penalty of 30 years to life.
Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson 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. Defense attorney Wally Fayssoux said Combs was ready to end a four-year ordeal.
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“My client is financially and emotionally exhausted,” Fayssoux said.
Bernard Bailey’s family told the judge he was a good man who stayed out of trouble and was targeted for arrest by an officer who was on a power trip, which set the tragedy in motion.
“We have been on a mission of justice. We know the outcome of this trial will not help Walter. But perhaps it will help some other family, some other young man,” said Bailey’s sister, JoAnn Bailey-Lawton.
Eutawville suspended Combs after the shooting and dismissed him several months later. The town reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement with Bailey’s family.
Combs shot Bailey in May 2011 as he tried to arrest him on an obstruction of justice charge weeks after he argued about his daughter’s traffic ticket on the side of a highway. Eutawville is a town of 300 people about 50 miles southeast of Columbia.
Bailey came to Town Hall to discuss the ticket and 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’ guilty plea to the lesser charge was a good outcome because it punishes him for “a totality of poor judgment,” Solicitor David Pascoe said.
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.
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.