EUTAWVILLE-- A South Carolina grand jury’s indictment last week of a white police chief in the killing of an unarmed black man capped three years during which a tense patience united this town’s 300 residents.
“It seemed for a while that the whole thing was being swept under the rug,” said Thomas Wolpert, the white owner of an outdoor-goods store in the one-block downtown, steps from where Bernard Bailey died in front of town hall. “You had the tinder. You had the match. But nobody struck it.”
The murder indictment of Richard Combs offers a counternarrative to those unfolding in Missouri and New York, where grand juries refused to charge police for killing unarmed black men, triggering protests across America. The charges speak to more intimate ties between blacks and whites in small towns and challenge the idea that racial conflict is at its worst in the once-segregated South.
While Orangeburg County was the site of a 1968 police killing of three students during a civil-rights protest, last week’s indictment is South Carolina’s third in four months for law officers who shot unarmed black men, and the first for murder.
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“The brand of justice, ironically, in this state has proved at this moment across America to be even higher than that that we see in New York City,” Bailey family attorney Carl Grant said last week.
The indictment chilled South Carolina police, said Wally Fayssoux, a lawyer for Combs, who predicted his client will be acquitted.
“There is a deep concern among law enforcement professionals about this idea that a man could be indicted for just doing his job,” Fayssoux said.
He said prosecutor David Pascoe, a white Democrat who sought the charge, wanted national attention. The indictment was announced the day that a New York City grand jury refused to act in the death of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by a police officer arresting him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. It came nine days after a grand jury took no action in the killing of Michael Brown, shot by an officer during an altercation after a petty theft in Ferguson, Mo.
Eutawville is in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, surrounded by cotton fields and pine trees. Its population is about two- thirds white. At the time of the May 2, 2011, killing, Combs was one of three officers in a town too poor for Tasers or pepper spray.
Combs, 38, was a stickler for traffic laws, according to Jean Davis Capers, president of the Eutawville NAACP. People complained about his expensive tickets for young blacks, she said. She relayed that to Pascoe, who is prosecutor for three counties that have about 200,000 residents among them. His district is divided roughly evenly between whites and blacks.
Bailey, 54, was well-known around Eutawville. A former corrections officer who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 285 pounds, he was a manager at a nearby Wal-Mart. His wife was a school librarian.
“Bernard was a very nice guy,” said Tom Bilton, a white friend. “If my wife and family went to Wal-Mart, he’d always have a smile for them.”
The events that led to Bailey’s death began in March 2011, when Combs pulled over his daughter for a broken tail light.
Briana Bailey called her father, but Combs didn’t want him at the scene and the two argued before Combs wrote the ticket.
Three days later, Combs got a warrant to arrest Bernard Bailey for obstructing justice. He intended to detain him at his daughter’s May 3 court date. Other officers would be around for protection, according to his petition to have misconduct charges dismissed under South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows citizens to kill if they consider their lives threatened.
Bailey came by Combs’ closet-sized town hall office a day early. He intended to pay the ticket, said Grant, the family lawyer.
Combs pulled out his warrant and Bailey walked out with Combs in pursuit. Bailey got in his truck and Combs tried to handcuff him while standing in the open door, according to his petition.
Bailey put the truck into reverse. In the self-defense petition, Combs’ lawyers argued that he was terrified he would be run over.
Combs shot Bailey three times.
“All I could think was ‘Bernard? Are you kidding me?’” said Bilton.
“We were all in disbelief,” said Alicia Philpott, a black neighbor of the Bailey family.
Capers and the NAACP’s state leadership organized a meeting at Bailey’s church. About 600 people showed up.
“We were ready to move forward, to do marches, anything,” said Gwen Barksdale, 59, a member from nearby Holly Hill.
Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP, advised against it, saying the community would be best served by letting law enforcement handle it.
“He said just relax for now,” Philpott said.
The civil-rights organization was already working with the U.S. Justice Department on other issues and asked that it investigate, said Dwight James, state executive director. The agency is also looking into the Garner and Brown cases.
After a yearlong probe into Bailey’s death, the department didn’t bring charges, Grant said, because it couldn’t establish a racial motivation.
“We all knew the Baileys,” said Wolpert, the outdoor store owner. “That’s why were so surprised when nothing happened afterwards. They were a very well-respected family.”
Then, in 2013, Pascoe picked up the case.
Pascoe, 47, had been a prosecutor for more than 20 years, and the head prosecutor, or solicitor, for South Carolina’s First Circuit since 2004. He got statewide attention this year when the Republican attorney general appointed him to probe allegations that House of Representatives Speaker Bobby Harrell misspent campaign funds. Harrell was indicted in September.
“There are two things that made this different than Ferguson or New York,” said Richard Harpootlian, a trial lawyer and prominent South Carolina Democrat who has worked with Pascoe. “The first is David Pascoe. He’s got an extraordinarily strong sense of right and wrong. And the second is politics. There was a political overlay in other cases that didn’t really happen here.”
Assistant Solicitor Ashley Cornwall said no one in Pascoe’s office would comment on the case.
Pascoe won an indictment against Combs for misconduct in office in 2013. Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson ruled against Combs this month, saying he couldn’t claim the right to self- defense in a confrontation he started and pursued. Then, the grand jury returned its murder indictment.
A Bloomberg Politics poll conducted last week showed that 53 percent of respondents said race relations have gotten worse during President Barack Obama’s administration. In majority- black Ferguson, whites dominate the government and police force. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the nation must confront racism: “There’s something fundamental we have to get at here.”
Yet in the years between the Eutawville killing and the indictment, its politics has become more integrated: There are two blacks on the formerly all-white town council and a black mayor, Jefferson Johnson, an 81-year-old retiree from the New York City Housing Authority.
Capers, the town NAACP president, said “We were all fired up to start something and it turns out, from the outcome of this situation, that we did the right thing.”
“This didn’t happen because of race,” she said. “This happened because of ego. I think we have sent a lesson to law enforcement that they need to hire the right kind of people.”