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3 indictments against US officers in past 4 months

December 5, 2014

EUTAWVILLE, South Carolina (AP) — South Carolina prosecutors have obtained indictments against three white officers for on-duty shootings of unarmed black men in the past four months, just as communities around the nation protest decisions not to charge officers in other states who have injured or killed suspects.

It might seem unusual that officers would face charges in a law-and-order state like South Carolina. But a former prosecutor with some high-profile cases under his belt said officials are acutely aware that people think there is a tendency to protect their own in the state and are extra careful to give cases involving police officers the highest level of scrutiny.

“As prosecutors, you are well aware of that stereotype and so you go that extra mile to make sure justice is done,” said state Rep. Tommy Pope, who served 13 years as a chief prosecutor and perhaps is best known for his prosecution of Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her two sons in a lake.

It took nearly four years for a grand jury to hand down a murder indictment in the latest South Carolina shooting. Richard Combs, white former police chief and at the time the only officer in the small town of Eutawville. was charged Wednesday in the 2011 shooting death of Bernard Bailey, an unarmed black man, after an argument, a case that instantly drew comparisons to the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting and the chokehold death in New York.

Bailey was shot in May 2011 during an argument over a traffic ticket issued to Bailey’s daughter. Combs had gotten an arrest warrant for Bailey after a previous argument over the same issue and followed the former prison guard to his truck. The two briefly fought when Combs tried to get inside to turn the ignition, and Combs then shot Bailey, saying he was tangled in the steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey drove away.

Combs’ lawyer accused prosecutors of taking advantage of national outrage toward police and the justice system to get the indictment.

“He’s trying to make it racial because his timing is perfect,” attorney John O’Leary said. “He’s got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag him (Combs) in and say, look what a great community we are here, because we’re going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years. That’s wrong. That’s completely wrong.”

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.


Collins reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press reporters Meg Kinnard in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP .

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