By Harriet McLeod
ORANGEBURG, S.C. (Reuters) - A white former police chief in South Carolina showed malice and poor judgment in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in 2011, a prosecutor said at his murder trial on Wednesday.
Richard Combs, 38, faces up to life in prison if convicted of killing Bernard Bailey, 54, in the town hall parking lot in Eutawville, a town of about 300 people southeast of Columbia.
Combs' trial comes as deaths involving white police officers and unarmed black men have sparked protests across the United States.
Combs is accused of shooting Bailey on May 2, 2011, after he came to speak with the police chief about a traffic ticket issued to his daughter, said prosecutor David Pascoe.
At the town hall, Combs tried to serve Bailey with an arrest warrant for obstructing justice stemming from the traffic stop, Pascoe said.
Bailey then headed to the parking lot, and Combs followed. The chief tried to prevent him from driving away and fired three shots from his gun, striking Bailey in the chest, abdomen and head, Pascoe said.
"Bernard Bailey was murdered for a broken tail light,” Pascoe said. “He was killed because of that man’s poor judgment.”
Defense attorney John O'Leary said Combs had reason to fear for his life as he found himself wedged in the open door of Bailey's truck, which the lawyer referred to as a dangerous weapon.
Combs had no stun gun or pepper spray to use, and he worried he would be run over when Bailey began to back the vehicle up, O'Leary said.
"If Mr. Bailey had actually complied with the arrest, we wouldn’t be here today," O'Leary said during an emotional opening statement. "The minute Mr. Bailey put that truck in gear, that was basically cocking a gun."
The former chief's indictment on the murder charge in December followed decisions by grand juries in New York City and Missouri not to indict white police officers involved in deaths of unarmed black men.
Pascoe's office has said the murder charge had nothing to do with the other cases, and Combs' defense lawyers say the South Carolina case is not about race.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Colleeen Jenkins and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Colleen Jenkins)