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Three former Sharon Hill officers accused of killing Fanta Bility will face trial in her death

Lawyers for the officers say the charges were improper, and were filed due to political pressure.

A relative holds up a cell phone with a photo of Fanta Bility.
A relative holds up a cell phone with a photo of Fanta Bility.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The three former Sharon Hill police officers who opened fire at an Academy Park High School football game in August, killing an 8-year-old girl, were held for trial Thursday on criminal charges relating to her death.

The officers’ attorneys, during the crowded hearing in Media, argued that the charges lobbed against the three were “disgusting,” improper, and the result of political pressure. Their clients had no intention of killing Fanta Bility that night, the lawyers said: They were presented with a chaotic, crowded scene and reacted to hearing bullets fly by their heads from a roving gun battle just 140 feet away.

Magisterial District Judge Robert Burke was not swayed, and upheld the voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment charges faced by ex-officers Brian Devaney, 41, Sean Dolan, 25, and Devon Smith, 34.

Fanta died after being struck in the back while walking with her mother and older sister after the football game. The officers, monitoring the crowd leaving the stadium, heard gunfire exchanged between two teens nearby and fired 25 times at a Chevrolet Impala that police said they mistakenly believed was involved in that shooting.

Some of their bullets flew past the car, hitting four people, including Fanta, who died at the scene in her mother’s arms.

Devaney, Dolan, and Smith were charged in January after a two-month investigation by a Delaware County grand jury. All three were fired by the Sharon Hill Borough Council days later.

Assistant District Attorney Douglas Rhodes argued Thursday that the three former officers made a reckless mistake when they fired at the vehicle.

“I’m not saying any of them woke up in the morning deciding to kill anyone; Lord knows they didn’t,” Rhodes said. “But what did their backdrop become when they fired 25 times at the Impala?”

Rhodes also noted that even if they had hit their intended target — Aasiyah Eastley, an Academy Park graduate who drove the Impala to the game — they still would be responsible for harming someone unrelated to the shooting they were responding to.

Devaney told one of his colleagues at the scene, Sharon Hill Police Detective Vincent Port, that “they were shooting at us” and that he, Smith, and Dolan all believed the car was the source of the gunfire, according to Port’s testimony Thursday.

The vehicle had stopped suddenly in front of the officers, and they, along with several bystanders, initially reported seeing gunfire come from the vehicle, according to testimony Thursday.

The actual gunmen, Angelo “AJ” Ford and Hasein Strand, were charged with first-degree murder in Fanta’s death, but the charge was later withdrawn and they pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.

While all three officers fired their weapons, it is unclear which officer fired the bullet that killed Fanta — the projectile was too badly damaged to trace it to a specific gun. But investigators could tell it was fired from a police-issued handgun, Delaware County Detective Timothy Deery said Thursday.

» READ MORE: The Sharon Hill officers charged with killing Fanta Bility may have acted against department policy

Attorneys for the officers seized on this uncertainty, saying that without knowing which specific officer fired the fatal shot, the entire case was overly broad and unfair, with one, Charles Matthew Gibbs, likening it to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

Instead, the defense attorneys asserted that Ford and Strand, the teens behind the initial gunfire, were truly responsible for Fanta’s death and should be the ones on trial.

“This chain of events that night was put into motion by two violent gang members who turned a football field into a battlefield,” Raymond Driscoll, who represents Devaney, said.

After the hearing, members of the Bility family praised the judge for upholding the charges, calling it an important step in getting justice for Fanta. They chided members of the Fraternal Order of Police who packed the courtroom in support of their colleagues.

“Nobody is saying they intentionally killed anybody, but I can’t believe there’s a single officer who came out here today who themselves believes it’s a good idea to shoot at a moving car, under any circumstances,” Bruce L. Castor Jr., an attorney representing the Bility family in a civil case, said.