Criminal charges have been filed against three Pennsylvania police officers in connection with the shooting death of an 8-year-old girl and the wounding of three others at a high school football game last year.
The girl, Fanta Bility, was killed on Aug. 27 when gunfire broke out shortly after the conclusion of a game at Academy Park High School in Sharon Hill, a community of about 5,700 residents near the Philadelphia International Airport. Bility’s sister and two others were injured.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced the charges Tuesday against three Sharon Hill Police officers — Devon Smith, Sean Dolan and Brian Devaney — in connection with Bility’s death. The officers face a total of 12 criminal counts of manslaughter and reckless endangerment “for their actions that night,” according to a statement from the district attorney’s office.
Preliminary findings in the investigation found that return fire from the police officers after a gunfight between two teens likely struck and killed Bility, prosecutors announced in September, less than a week after the shooting.
“We have now concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that it was, in fact, shots from the officers that struck and killed Fanta Bility and injured three others,” the statement from the district attorney’s office read.
A grand jury recommended charges of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment, which were all approved by the district attorney’s office.
Investigators determined that after the gun shots began, two were fired in the direction of the officers, who were monitoring the crowd exiting the stadium, prosecutors said. The officers then discharged their weapons in the direction of the football field.
The officers were placed on paid administrative leave following the shooting. The Sharon Hill Borough Council will vote on whether to fire the officers during a meeting on Thursday, according to a statement from the council.
“The entire Borough grieves for Fanta Bility and we again convey our deepest sympathies to her family and everyone affected by the shooting,” the statement read. “Today’s indictment of our police officers brings us to another solemn moment. Today we must reflect on our safety, and on those who are sworn to protect and serve.”
Bail was set at $500,000 for each officer, and preliminary hearings have been set for Jan. 27 in the Springfield District Court.
“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,” Raymond Driscoll, Steven Patton and Charles Gibbs, the lawyers for the three officers, said in a joint statement. “These three officers ran to the sound of gunshots and risked their own lives to protect that community. These three good men are innocent, and remain heartbroken for all who have suffered because of this senseless violence.”
The gunfight that killed Bility began as a verbal altercation between two teens, prosecutors said. Activists criticized prosecutors for their handling of the case after arguing that the two teens who started the gun battle should be held criminally liable for Bility’s death. The pair were eventually charged with first-degree murder and other offenses.
Stollsteimer directed his office to drop the murder charges against the teens, he said in a statement Tuesday.
“While I believe these defendants should be held accountable for starting the series of events that ultimately led to Fanta Bility’s death, developments during the grand jury investigation render it appropriate to withdraw these charges at this time,” Stollsteimer said.
Hasein Strand, 18, of Collingdale, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and charges of aggravated assault for his wounding of a child bystander during the gunfight. By the terms of his plea, Strand will serve a sentence of 32 to 64 months at a state correctional institute and will remain under court supervision until 2030, prosecutors said.
The other teen involved in the fight, who is 16, “remains charged with serious crimes for his attempt to kill Strand,” prosecutors said. A scheduled hearing for him was postponed last week after activists ramped up their protests.
The family is thankful for the charges brought against the officers, an attorney for the Bility family, Bruce L. Castor Jr., said in a statement released by the district attorney’s office Tuesday.
“The family appreciates that the District Attorney has kept the family informed at every stage of this investigation,” Castor said. “From the beginning he assured them that he would seek justice for Fanta, and today’s charges indicate that he’s done exactly that. They made the right call.”