Three Sharon Hill officers have been charged in the fatal shooting of Fanta Bility
Prosecutors have also pledged to withdraw murder charges against two teenagers in connection with Fanta's death.
Three Sharon Hill police officers were charged with manslaughter Tuesday for killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility while firing at a car outside a high school football game in August.
After a grand jury investigation, officers Devon G. Smith, Sean Patrick Dolan, and Brian James Devaney face counts of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said.
At the same time, the prosecutor’s office is withdrawing murder charges against two teenagers it had accused of contributing to the death by engaging in a gunfight 140 feet away that drew the officers’ fire. Those charges, filed late last year, had outraged some in the community who said it took the focus away from the police officers’ culpability in Fanta’s death.
The girl was shot Aug. 27 as she and her family were leaving the game at Academy Park High School. The officers had been monitoring the crowd as it dispersed, heard gunfire about a block away, and then turned to see a vehicle heading toward them.
Mistakenly believing the car was involved in that shooting, the officers opened fire, striking the car multiple times, investigators said. Bullets flew past the vehicle, hitting four people, including Fanta, who died at the scene in her mother’s arms.
Devaney, 41, has been a member of the Sharon Hill Police Department since 2005 and coincidentally is the assigned school resource officer for Academy Park High School. Smith, 34, was hired in 2015. Dolan, 25, is a part-time officer who only joined the force in July. All three were released on $500,000 unsecured bail after their arraignments Tuesday.
In a statement, their attorneys said the officers are innocent and “remain heartbroken for all who have suffered because of this senseless violence.”
“This is a terrible tragedy that was caused by armed and violent criminals who turned a high school football game into a crime scene in which an innocent child lost her life and others were seriously injured,” said the statement from lawyers Steve Patton, Raymond Driscoll, and Charles Matthew Gibbs. “These three officers ran to the sound of gunshots and risked their own lives to protect that community.”
Devaney and Dolan did not return calls for comment, and Smith hung up on a reporter when reached Tuesday afternoon.
The officers’ union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27, said it will cover their legal bills and “provide a vigorous defense against these allegations.”
“This is a sad day for our officers, who face criminal charges for trying to do their jobs and keeping the community safe,” lodge president Joseph Fitzgerald said.
Sharon Hill Borough Council President Tanya Allen said the council will vote Thursday night on a motion to fire the three officers.
“We respect the judicial process and while we have been patient in our approach, now that the grand jury has concluded its investigation, and given the serious charges issued by the district attorney, we are able to move forward with measures that will hold the officers accountable,” Allen said.
Hasein Strand, 18, one of the teens who had been charged last fall in connection with the shooting, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and gun offenses and was immediately sentenced to 32 to 64 months in state prison. Similar charges against the other teen, Angelo “AJ” Ford, were still unresolved, but prosecutors said they similarly intend to withdraw the murder charge he faces for the shooting, which injured a bystander.
In November, Stollsteimer made the controversial decision to charge Strand and Ford, 16, with murder, saying under the legal principle of transferred intent, their actions ultimately led to Fanta’s death. The move caused widespread protest, including calls for Stollsteimer to resign.
In an interview Tuesday, the district attorney defended that decision, saying it was an appropriate charge for the teens at the time, based on the information available before the grand jury was impaneled.
“A crime occurred, and these two young men could’ve caused other mayhem,” Stollsteimer said. “There was no doubt that what they did was criminal when they did it. But as in any case, evidence is constantly being reevaluated.”
It was the work of the grand jury in examining the evidence that led prosecutors to withdraw the murder charges against the teens, he said.
According to the grand jury’s presentment, filed Tuesday, it is unclear which officer fired the bullet that killed Fanta — the projectile was too badly damaged to trace it to a specific gun. The shooting itself was not recorded by the body cameras worn by Dolan or Smith; Devaney was not wearing his.
Devaney told one of his colleagues at the scene of the shooting that “they were shooting at us” and that he, Smith, and Dolan all believed the car carrying two young women was the source of the gunfire, according to the grand jury presentment.
The women, Academy Park alumni Aasiyah Easley and Yasmin Mobley, were leaving the football game when the shooting took place, according to their attorney, Bruce L. Castor.
Manslaughter, and not murder, was the appropriate charge for the officers, because they acted under the “mistaken belief of self-defense” by firing their weapons at the car, according to First Assistant District Attorney Tanner Rouse.
“This is not a situation where they simply opened fire with the intent to harm the people they fired at,” Rouse said Tuesday. “There was a belief, though it was a mistaken belief, that this was necessary.”
Community activists, local politicians, and the Bility family have been vocal about the investigation since Fanta’s death, saying the charges against the teens inappropriately shifted the focus away from the officers who fired the fatal shots.
They have called for the officers to be fired — holding a rally Tuesday just hours before the charges against them were announced — and expressed frustration that they were allowed to remain on the force on administrative leave as the investigation continued.
In a statement Tuesday, members of Delco Resists UDTJ, local social justice organizations, said the teens’ families were relieved the murder charges were withdrawn.
“The hard and dedicated social justice work of the community has prevailed today, yet the long march for justice for the Bility family has only just begun,” the statement read. “We ask everyone to continue to show up as we enter this next stage.”
The groups also demanded Stollsteimer provide “a detailed summary of the events” of the night of the shooting, including video and legal arguments used to file the charges.
Five members of Philadelphia City Council — Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Helen Gym, and Isaiah Thomas — issued a similar statement last week, saying Stollsteimer’s handling of the case is a “miscarriage of justice.”
“We want to be clear that these two young men deserve to face appropriate consequences for their actions — but the way in which this case has unfolded defies logic,” the councilmembers said.
During his sentencing Tuesday, Strand apologized to Delaware County Judge George M. Green for the shooting. His lawyer, Christopher Boggs, explained that Strand carried a gun because he had been shot at before, and used it that night “out of the unreasonable expectation of protecting his brothers” who had been threatened by Ford.
“What happened that day was a mistake,” Strand said. “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.”
Strand’s father, Larry Strand, said Tuesday that he and his family are focused solely on justice for Fanta and that anything else is a distraction.
“I don’t think charging these two kids was justice for Fanta, because neither one of them killed Fanta,” Strand said. “I’m no lawyer, but when I hear people explaining what first-degree murder in Pennsylvania is, I don’t think that’s what either one of these kids has done.”
Castor, who is also representing the Bility family, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the three Sharon Hill officers. In filing the suit, he said, the family “seeks answers and damages for the tragic and unnecessary death ... and the injury and trauma inflicted on others as a result of the misconduct of Sharon Hill Police officers.”
Sharon Hill’s borough council, meanwhile, has hired an attorney, Kelley B. Hodge, to examine its internal policies on how its officers are trained and to recommend reforms where needed.
News researcher Ryan Briggs contributed to this article.