West not guilty of murder in Towne Point shooting

DOVER – Late Thursday afternoon a 54-year-old man was found not guilty of murder for a deadly confrontation at Towne Point Elementary School last year.

As he was leaving work, custodian Rodney West discharged a firearm four times after Derrick Combs, 39, arrived in a vehicle just before 10 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2018.

Mr. Combs fell to the ground and was pronounced dead at the scene; Mr. West drove away before authorities arrived shortly afterward following 911 calls.

The school was closed at the time of the incident.

A Superior Court jury of seven women and five men took seven hours to determine the fate of Mr. West, who faced the possibility of life in prison with a murder conviction. He opted not to plead guilty to manslaughter before the trial started.

Speaking to media from the steps of the Kent County Courthouse afterward, Mr. West’s wife Teresa praised God for her spouse’s upcoming freedom while expressing remorse for the Combs family losing a son, brother, cousin, father and husband.

Mr. Combs’ family members and supporters quickly left the courtroom following the verdict.

Defense attorney Joseph A. Hurley said that while he hoped Mr. West would be released from prison later in the night, Friday was also possible. He praised the “wonderful” jury for changing lives while “doing their jobs” and “doing it right.”

Deputy Attorney General Gregory R. Babowal, who prosecuted the case with Sean M. Motoyoshi, said “Obviously the state is disappointed with the verdict.

“The defendant’s testimony and show of emotion obviously persuaded the jurors. Hopefully the Combs family can come to terms with the verdict and their loss of a loved one.”

Mr. West’s older brother Gary offered sympathy for the Combs’ family’s loss and said “We wish this could have been prevented in some sort of way.

“It’s unfortunate that two families were hurt in this situation. We all have to recognize that these things have to be resolved in better ways …

“We just want peace for all the families involved.”

Men at odds

The men were odds for weeks following sexually charged text exchanges between Mr. West and Mr. Combs’ wife who also worked at the school.

The conflict ended when Mr. Combs was shot once each in the head and chest and twice in the abdomen. Both men were outside their vehicles at the time.

Jurors began deliberations just after 9 a.m. and requested a laptop to review surveillance video of the incident almost immediately.

A not-guilty verdict on a possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony charge was returned.

The jury also could have considered lesser offenses second-degree murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide counts.

In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors pointed to statements attributed to Mr. West in the short aftermath of the shooting – “I’m sorry,” “I’m jetting” and “I messed up.”

While police said Mr. West initially indicated he would turn himself in shortly after the incident, he instead traveled to his brother’s home in Silver Spring, Maryland and was apprehended by federal marshals and extradited to Delaware on Sept. 4, 2018. A firearm was found hidden inside the home, prosecutors said.

Mr. West testified that he didn’t immediately go to police due to the firearm-related nature of the case. He claimed he did not contact police earlier to avoid having his wife find out and become upset.

Mr. Hurley focused on Mr. Combs’ reported continuing harassment and his wife’s social media message that he couldn’t let go of the tension. The trio had met once at Mr. West’s home for 45 to 60 minutes to hash out their differences, according to testimony, and Mr. West said three of his Cadillac vehicle’s tires were found slashed the next day.

Mr. West armed himself and discharged a firearm in fear for his life, according to Mr. Hurley; prosecutors said Mr. Combs was unarmed and preparing for a fistfight when shot, including twice while supposedly lying on the ground.

Prosecutors maintained that Mr. West could have driven away in his vehicle prior to the shooting, and that the defendant, at different times, claimed to be blocked in, partially blocked in and closed off. Jurors viewed surveillance video of the encounter during the trial and deliberations.

A man who arrived in the vehicle with Mr. Combs testified that he hunched down when gunfire started, and heard the late man first say “What’s up?” and Mr. West supposedly responded with “This is what’s up.”

Timeline to decide

Mr. Hurley opined that Mr. West had only three to four seconds to make the most important decision of his life and believed the approaching man could be armed based on his movements and looking at his right hand.

Prosecutors focused on a 16-second stretch they claimed Mr. West had to make his decision in and that Mr. Combs placed eyeglasses on his vehicle’s hood as he approached.

Mr. Babowal argued that when Mr. West did not get the desired response when expressing concerns to Dover Police the day before the incident, he went to work intending to use the firearm. Mr. Hurley argued that the weapon was kept nearby for self protection.

The incident was described as an “ambush” by Mr. Hurley and that Mr. Combs had been stalked relentlessly prior to the last encounter.

According to Mr. West, Mr. Combs had pointed a firearm in his direction during a previous traffic stop. A firearm was located in the late man’s vehicle following the shooting.

The prosecution categorized Mr. Combs as a member of a motorcycle club with middle age men gathering for weekend rides and the defense termed him as a motorcycle gang member.

Both men were described as devoted to their families, who had a regular presence throughout the two weeks of proceedings.

Judge Noel Eason Primos is overseeing the trial.

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