The family of an unarmed black man shot dead by a South Carolina police officer vowed to continue their "unswerving pursuit of justice" despite a mistrial being declared in the case Tuesday.
A jury in Orangeburg hearing the case against former Police Chief Richard Combs remained split after 12 hours of deliberation, leading Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson to declare a mistrial.
After that development, prosecutor David Pascoe said nine of the 12 jurors voted to convict. "We just had three jurors we couldn't convince," he said.
The judge had authorized the jury to consider a lesser murder charge — voluntary manslaughter — but members of the panel remained deadlocked. Pascoe said he would evaluate the case, but plans to try Combs again.
Combs, who is white, shot Bernard Bailey in May 2011. The case was one of three indictments in recent months against South Carolina police officers facing charges for allegedly wrongfully shooting unarmed black men.
There is little hard proof offered as explanation about what — if anything — is being done differently in South Carolina when it comes to indicting police for shooting unarmed civilians. What is clear is that not charging officers in such cases has left drastically different impressions. The failure of grand juries to deliver indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island in New York has illuminated a huge divide along racial lines. An overwhelming majority of black Americans (80 and 90 percent, respectively) felt the grand juries made the wrong decisions in the Brown and Garner cases (compared with 23 and 47 percent of whites), according to a Pew Research survey released Dec. 5, 2014.
On May 2, 2011, Combs, the then-police chief of Eutawville, shot Bailey three times as he climbed into his pickup truck in the parking lot outside the police station. Bailey was attempting to leave the station after a heated dispute over a broken taillight ticket given by Combs to Bailey's daughter seven weeks earlier. On that day, Bailey had attempted to intervene on her behalf alongside the road, and Combs later sought a warrant against Bailey for obstruction of justice but did not serve him until Bailey came to Town Hall on May 2, the day prior to his daughter’s trial. Prosecutors contend it was a trumped-up charge. After being told he would be arrested, Bailey left the office to return to his truck.
Combs followed Bailey into the parking lot to make the arrest but said he became caught in the truck’s door when it began to move. He fired in self-defense and not because of Bailey’s race, the former police chief’s defense attorney said during the trial.
Pascoe, however, argued that Combs wanted to make a display of arresting Bailey and could have requested backup from other officers. He said also that the truck was not moving and Bailey’s foot was found on the brake pedal.
“He thought he got away with it because he wears a badge. Prove him wrong,” Pascoe said during his hourlong closing argument.
In a statement released through their attorney Tuesday, Bailey’s family members said they appreciated the jury’s service. “Even though the jury was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared, we are not dissuaded from our unswerving pursuit of justice for Bernard Bailey,” they said.
“We regret the loss of any life,” Combs’ attorney, John O’Leary, said in a statement to Al Jazeera America. “We can assure you that Chief Combs was acting lawfully following police procedures and training in carrying out his duties in protecting and serving the citizens of his community.”
Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said “I’m not surprised. When officers kill African-Americans, rarely is there a case when an officer is found guilty.”
Bailey was shot in Eutawville, in Orangeburg County, where 62 percent of the population is African-American.
Randolph, citing the prosecution’s promise to pursue another trial, said he is urging the black community to have patience with the legal system. “I don’t think anyone will benefit from showing any anger,” he said. “I still trust the system because there are still people in the system who will do right.”
Trials still await two other South Carolina law enforcement officers who have been indicted in recent months for allegedly wrongful shootings. State Trooper Sean Groubert shot Levar Jones, 31, in the hip in a seat belt stop on Sept. 4, 2014 that was recorded by a dashboard camera. Jones survived the shooting, and Groubert was fired and then indicted for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
On Feb. 9, 2014, 68-year-old Earnest Satterwhite was shot and killed by Public Safety Officer Justin Gregory Craven after leading officers on a chase that stretched to Satterwhite’s house in nearby Edgefield. Craven was placed on administrative leave almost seven months after the incident — and a week after he was indicted by an Edgefield County grand jury for a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office. The prosecutor originally sought an indictment for voluntary manslaughter.
With wire services