Trial of minister, wife continues

Date: 2000-03-21

Oak Ridger, The (TN)

BLOUNTVILLE (AP) -- The trial of a minister and his wife charged with abusing a girl for nearly two decades continues today, as the judge considers their attorneys' motion to drop some of the charges.

Sullivan County Circuit Judge Jerry Beck said Monday he will allow the trial to proceed while he researches an issue with the statute of limitations that could affect some charges in the 19-count indictment. He did not say when he will rule on the matter.

The Rev. Joseph Combs and his wife Evangeline are accused of taking a girl from an orphanage but failing to adopt her, raising her as the family's servant and repeatedly assaulting her. Joseph Combs also is charged with rape. Mrs. Combs also is charged with child abuse.

On Monday, defense attorneys called Combs' younger brother to the witness stand. But prosecutors said Tim Combs of Charlotte, N.C., had violated the rule that witnesses are barred from the courtroom before they testify.

With the jury out of the room, Tim Combs took the stand and said he had not been in the courtroom since testimony began in the case March 2.

District Attorney General Greeley Wells then called several people who testified they saw Tim Combs in the courtroom two weeks ago when Esther Combs, the alleged victim, was testifying.

When Tim Combs returned to the witness stand, he said he was confused earlier and actually had been in the courtroom during previous testimony, but could not remember what he heard.

The judge said he could not testify.

"This is one of the most egregious situations I've ever seen from the standpoint of a witness ... giving a falsehood before this court, and I think it was intentional," Beck said.

Assistant District Attorney Barry Staubus declined to comment on whether a perjury charge will be filed against Tim Combs.

Earlier Monday, the two youngest Combs children testified in support of their parents. Sarah Combs, 13, and Peter Combs, 15, both said their parents never beat Esther or forced her to do all the cooking and cleaning.

Their testimony was similar to what their siblings -- Jimmy, 22, David, 21, and Cindy, 20 -- told jurors last week. All the Combs children referred to Esther as "my sister" and said they did not know what caused the 410 scars on her body.

Esther, now 22 and living in another state under a different name, had testified that Mrs. Combs burned her with a curling iron, beat her with baseball bats and pulled out chunks of her flesh with pliers. Esther said Joseph Combs whipped her and forced her to engage in sex acts.

She said much of the abuse happened when the family was living in a building of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church in Bristol, where Joseph Combs was hired as pastor in 1989.

Joseph Combs' mother Hilda Combs also testified Monday, saying Esther was a "rough little girl" who played with the boys and had a temper but seemed happy in the home. Hilda Combs said she never saw scars on Esther.

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