ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) — The 2011 killing of an unarmed black man by a small-town South Carolina police chief was a senseless act of violence by an officer who should be convicted of murder because everyone is equal under the law, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
But a defense lawyer said former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs fired in self-defense while trying to serve a lawfully obtained arrest warrant. He added that the legal system would not work if people could just leave instead of being taken into custody.
Opening statements began Wednesday in Combs' murder trial. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.
Combs was indicted last month shortly after grand juries produced no indictments against white officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York. He was the third white officer indicted in 2014 in a shooting of an unarmed black man in South Carolina.
Both sides agree Combs shot Bernard Bailey outside Eutawville Town Hall in May 2011 after an argument over a ticket for a broken tail light the chief had given Bailey's daughter about six weeks earlier.
Prosecutor David Pasco said Combs showed malice when he tried to arrest Bailey "on a trumped up warrant." When Bailey tried to leave that day "the defendant followed after him and ended up putting three bullets in his body, one at point-blank range."
Pascoe said Bailey was "gunned down in an absolutely senseless act of violence" and that even police officers are not above the law.
"Whether he wears a badge or not, the law must treat everyone equal," the prosecutor told the jury of seven blacks and five whites.
Combs' lawyer John O'Leary said his client, a former Marine, secured the obstruction of justice warrant after Bailey interfered when Combs arrested Bailey's daughter for the tail light violation on March 15, 2011.
When Bailey went to town hall on May 2, 2011, the day before the traffic ticket was to go before a town judge, Combs tried to serve the obstruction warrant and Bailey walked out, O'Leary said.
As a small-town police chief, he didn't have a stun gun or pepper spray, so he had no choice but to fire his gun as Bailey tried to back away with Combs caught in the door of the truck, the attorney said.
"He falls and as he falls he fires two shots and he fires a third one because he is basically on his back," O'Leary said. "He's fallen and he shoots in self-defense."
The defense attorney added the obstruction charge "could have been resolved in the court system if Mr. Bailey had cooperated" and that while Bailey didn't have a gun "there is a weapon — it's the truck."
The prosecution called its first seven witnesses Wednesday, one a paramedic who when he arrived at the scene testified Combs denied falling, had no abrasions and said he wasn't in pain.
An hour later at the hospital, Kelly Kinsey testified Combs told him he had fallen and "was feeling sore all over." Kinsey said on cross examination however that an adrenalin rush following a stressful incident can sometimes prevent one from initially feeling pain.
State Law Enforcement Division investigator Scott Hardee testified he found the victim's foot was on the brake pedal of the truck at the scene. But he also said he could not be sure that medical personnel had not moved the body before he arrived.
Combs was placed on leave after the shooting and the town dismissed him six months later.