A Pennsylvania grand jury has recommended that the trio of Sharon Hill cops who fired their guns outside a high school football game in August, killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility, face criminal charges for their actions.
On Tuesday, the Delaware County District Attorney’s office filed charges of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and 10 counts of reckless endangerment against the three officers. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer also made the bombshell announcement that his office would be dropping first-degree murder charges against the two teens that police and prosecutors had previously insisted were responsible for Fanta’s death.
In November, three months after the Aug. 27 football game, Stollsteimer made the controversial decision to charge Hasein Strand, 18, and Angelo “AJ” Ford, 16, with Fanta’s murder. Using the murky legal principle of transferred intent, the district attorney argued that by engaging in a gunfight 140 feet away from the officers and by drawing police fire, Strand and Ford bore the responsibility for Fanta’s death, even though it was caused directly by the police.
It is still unknown which of the three officers—Devon G. Smith, Sean Patrick Dolan, and Brian James Devaney—fired the bullet that fatally struck Fanta, who had gone to the game that night to cheer on her cousin. The bullet, which struck Fanta in her back, was too badly damaged to link it to a specific gun, according to the grand jury’s presentation.
Fanta died in her mom’s arms, three days before she was due to start the third grade at Sharon Hill School. Four other people, including Fanta’s 13-year-old sister, Mamasa, were injured by police when they opened fire at a vehicle they mistakenly believed was involved in the gunfight between Ford and Strand.
Fanta’s death drew national attention and widespread outrage, compounded by Stollsteimer’s decision to charge Strand and Ford, characterized by the executive director of the Amistad Law Project as “an attempt to deflect attention from the undisputed fact that the Sharon Hill police killed Fanta Bility.”
“Both [Stollsteimer] and the Sharon Hill Police must be held accountable for the ways they’ve harmed the community and fostered injustice,” director Kris Henderson added in an email to Newsweek earlier this month.
Several Philadelphia City Council members called Stollsteimer’s decision a “miscarriage of justice” and said that, while Ford and Strand deserved to be held accountable, “the way in which this case has unfolded defies logic.”
In a Tuesday interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Stollsteimer still defended his decision to charge the teens. “A crime occurred, and these two young men could’ve caused other mayhem,” he said. “There was no doubt that what they did was criminal when they did it. But as in any case, evidence is constantly being re-evaluated.”
He credited the grand jury’s exploratory work for the withdrawal of the murder charges against Ford and Strand. Stollsteimer’s First Assistant District Attorney, Tanner Rouse, said that the cops involved in the shooting were being charged with manslaughter—rather than murder—because they were acting under the “mistaken belief of self-defense.”
Smith, 34, and Dolan, 25, did not capture the shooting on their body cameras. Devaney, a 41-year-old who has been with the department since 2005, was not wearing his camera.
Law firm McMonagle Perri McHugh Mischak Davis, which is representing the officers, did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday.
A gathering of community activists and local politicians, joined by members of the Bility family, came together hours before the new charges were announced. Organizers had called for the cops to be fired, expressing anger that the trio had been allowed to remain on administrative leave during the investigation.
“We need justice,” Fanta’s aunt had said after her niece’s funeral on Aug. 31. “She didn’t deserve this. She was an innocent girl. She did nothing wrong, and she never hurt anyone.”
Bruce Castor, the attorney representing Fanta’s family, thanked Stollsteimer for the latest developments.
“From the beginning he assured [the Bility family] that he would seek justice for Fanta and today’s charges indicate that he’s done exactly that,” Castor said in a statement. “They made the right call.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Stollsteimer’s office said that Strand had pleaded guilty to several of the case’s lesser charges, which included aggravated assault and gun charges. He was sentenced Tuesday to 32-to-64 months in state prison.
During his sentencing, Strand apologized for the shooting. “What happened that day was a mistake,” he said, according to the Inquirer. “Everybody makes mistakes, it’s just... you have to deal with the mistakes for life. So, hopefully, I can come back from this and nobody will look at me differently from how they looked at me before.”
His attorney explained that the 18-year-old had used his gun outside the Academy Park High School football field that night “out of the unreasonable expectation of protecting his brothers” from Ford.
Ford’s case remained pending as of Tuesday.
“I don’t think my son is guilty of first-degree murder because he didn’t intend on doing anything,” Strand’s father told Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate. “It’s obvious that the police bullets was responsible for all the shooting that took place.”