Buried deep beneath the national outrage over Ferguson and Staten Island was a story about just the opposite: a white cop who shot an unarmed black man allegedly resisting arrest was just indicted for murder. In this case, it appears that the prosecutor actually did his job.
After waiting a couple years for the Feds to clear a civil rights investigation—ending in no charges—a grand jury in Orangeburg County, SC, was finally able to begin hearings in 2013. By August of that year they had found cause to charge the officer with misconduct in office, which could bring a ten year sentence. In seeking an additional charge for murder, the grand jury had to wait until a judge ruled whether or not the officer could leverage the state’s “stand your ground laws.”
That defense was denied late last month, and murder charges were filed last Wednesday against Michael J. Combs, the former police chief of tiny Eutawville, SC.
Combs is charged with the murder of Bernard Bailey, an unarmed black man resisting arrest. According to accounts (here and here), Bailey had visited the town hall to fight a traffic ticket issued to his daughter. When leaving the facility, Bailey was confronted by Combs over an outstanding warrant for arrest (another account claims it was an obstruction of justice charge).
Bailey, however, continued to leave, entered his vehicle, and started it. With the vehicle door still open, officer Combs reached in and tried to shut off the vehicle. When unsuccessful, he tried to grab the gear shift. Unsuccessful again, the truck (according to his own testimony) was put in reverse and began moving backward. This pinned Combs in at the door hinge with his arm locked behind the steering wheel. His hand cuffs fell and he pulled his gun. He says he feared for his life, and thus ripped off two .40 rounds point-blank into Bailey’s chest and abdomen.
Then his testimony gets really odd. He says he fell down. He says that after those first two shots, Bailey then rose up and came towards him. At this point, Combs says he fired a third shot. Coroner’s report shows that this one travelled through Bailey’s shoulder, into his jaw, and finally lodged inside the upper right side of his cranium. Combs also testifies that he had no idea how the truck finally came to a stop, and yet also testified that he himself had to put the truck in park after incapacitating Bailey.
But this means the truck must have continued in reverse until stopped. Thus, Bailey either had to have exited the vehicle and stepped around the open door to go after Combs before that third shot, or that Combs fell on the open side of the door and Bailey merely leaned out after him. Yet this still leaves the mystery of the moving vehicle. How could a man with two bullets in his torso have the presence of mind to step on the brake? If he did, how could a man with his foot on the brake be a threat “coming back at” Combs? If he didn’t, then how did the truck not continue past where Combs claimed he fell?
Prosecutor David Pascoe hinted at this inconsistency somewhat for the grand jury. In a publicized portion of the hearing, Pascoe sat on the floor, mimicking Combs’ alleged position on the ground while aiming up at a another attorney as a prop, and challenged (mildly) Combs’s testimony:
You’re telling the court, that he’s coming toward you, after you shot him two times at point-blank range with a .40-caliber pistol in the chest? . . .
Are you sure that the third shot didn’t happen after you’ve already stuck bullets in his chest, .40-caliber, which would knock him back that way [angling his prop sideways, back towards a mock-passenger side], and that third shot didn’t go through his shoulder, through his jaw, and into the back of his head? . . . That’s not how it happened?
I think this was very mild examination considering the inconsistencies already noted in Combs’s testimony. Nevertheless, whatever else may have been included in the hearings, the prosecutor did enough to secure an indictment for murder.
The prosecutor thus gave the police something closer to what everyone else gets in a grand jury process. As of late, there has been an outcry over kid-gloves treatment by prosecutors given to police officers involved in questionable deaths of suspects. Further furor has erupted in the many attempts to exploit racial differences in recent cases such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “White cop kills black guy and gets away with it.”
Well, here’s a case where that’s not true. Whether the racial element had anything to do with it or not, here’s a clear case where the justice system has, so far, pushed through. Here’s a case where white cop kills black man and gets indicted for murder.
And this is not the first. Combs is the third white police officer in the past year to have been indicted in similar instances:
In August, a North Augusta officer was charged with misconduct in office in the shooting death of a 68-year-old unarmed black man at his home after a chase. A state trooper was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in September when he shot a driver he had pulled over as the man reached in his car to get his wallet. That shooting was captured on the trooper’s dashboard camera and shown around the world. Both officers are awaiting trials.
Here’s a case where the real issue at hand can come to the fore: not race, but excessive use of force, and the immunities and benefit of the doubt for police that so often come with it.
The judge who ruled out a “stand your ground” defense agrees with this assessment. He previously commented:
In a situation such as this, where the arrestee poses no threat to the public, there are other means of executing an arrest warrant if initial service is unsuccessful. . . .
There was no need for Mr. Combs to act as he did on May 2, 2011, when Mr. Bailey refused service, as Mr. Combs expected would happen. Mr. Combs should have allowed Mr. Bailey to leave and enlisted the assistance of other officers or serve the warrant at court as he originally planned.
Of course, all that has occurred so far is an indictment. It is only the initial phase of a trial. But now, unlike Ferguson or Staten Island, we will actually get to sift through the evidence, weigh and strongly challenge both sides of the facts against the law. A man may actually be held accountable for something.
And I will also add that Combs is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But now we at least have a chance to find out.
If anything, this ought to quell the outrage and total despair over the system just a bit. God has not left us totally destitute in our sins, yet.