3 ex-Pa. officers plead guilty to reckless endangerment in shooting death of 8-year-old girl
The officers were returning fire at a vehicle that was shooting at them when they unintentionally struck the girl with a stray bullet that flew into a crowd
By Vinny Vella
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILDELPHIA — The three former Sharon Hill police officers who opened fire after a high school football game in August 2021, killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility and wounding three others, pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment Thursday during a crowded hearing in Media.
Brian Devaney, 42, Sean Dolan, 26, and Devon Smith, 35, remain free on bail while awaiting sentencing by Delaware County Judge Margaret J. Amoroso in January.
Their pleas, negotiated with the District Attorney's Office, meant more serious charges of manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter would be dismissed.
Attorneys for the officers, who were fired days after their arrests, had sought for months to have the manslaughter charges dismissed. They said the officers were responding to a shooting nearby when they fired their guns that day and had not intended to kill the child or harm anyone other than the suspects involved in the earlier gunfire. The lawyers also said the officers were being unfairly targeted for prosecution because of their profession.
Amoroso declined to dismiss the manslaughter charges in September, setting the stage for a trial.
Thursday's plea, Deputy District Attorney Douglas Rhoads said during the hearing, came in consultation with Fanta's family, who saw it as an appropriate conclusion to the criminal case. The Bility family had publicly called for justice and accountability for the child's death.
After the hearing, his voice thick with emotion, Fanta's uncle, Abu Bility, said, "The hurt caused by Sharon Hill Borough and its police department has overcome our family with tremendous grief."
He said that the family is still struggling with Fanta's loss, and that for them, the plea deal was an opportunity to find closure amid their grief.
"It's critically important for our family to begin the healing process, which cannot happen while this matter remains on reserve," he said. "Therefore, after prayer and discussion with our family, we determined it was in our best interest for the district attorney to ensure that the police officers take responsibility for their actions and admit to their reckless conduct."
Attorneys for the former officers did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Fanta was struck by one of 25 bullets fired by Devaney, Dolan, and Smith as dozens of people were leaving an exhibition game between Academy Park High School and Pennsbury. She had attended the game with her family, in part to watch her older sister Mawatta's first performance as a cheerleader.
She died in the arms of her mother, Tenneh Kromah, amid the chaos of stampeding bystanders trying to find safety.
Devaney, Dolan, and Smith declined to testify before a grand jury impaneled to investigate the shooting. But sworn testimony from their colleagues has shed light on what happened that night: The three, who were stationed near the stadium's exit, monitoring the crowd, heard gunfire about a block away. They mistakenly believed that the source of the shots was a Chevrolet Impala that had stopped abruptly in front of them outside the stadium, and that the occupants of the car had been firing at them, according to a grand jury presentment filed in the case.
The officers' bullets riddled the vehicle, shattering its windows and ricocheting off its frame. One of those stray shots flew beyond the car and into the crowd, where it struck Fanta. Three other people, including Fanta's sister Mamasu, 12, were injured.
Investigators later learned that the officers were mistaken: The shots were fired by two teenagers nearby, Angelo "AJ" Ford and Hasein Strand, who police say started a gunfight after an argument at the stadium escalated.
Ford and Strand were initially charged with murder in Fanta's death, but those charges were dropped after the grand jury recommended charges against the officers. The teens were charged with lesser crimes arising from the shooting, which injured a 13-year-old bystander.
The car, it turned out, was occupied by two Academy Park alumni who had arrived late to the game. They were not struck by any of the bullets, though one of the women was injured by broken glass, according to investigators.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in a statement Thursday that the guilty plea "brings accountability" to the officers involved in the shooting that night.
"Fanta's death was a tragedy for her family, her friends, and for the entire community, and nothing that happened in the courtroom today can lessen the grief that we have all felt since that terrible night," he said. "As we have endeavored to achieve justice in the midst of such a tragedy, my office has remained in close communication with the family to ensure that their feelings were heard and respected."
The Bility family has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the three former officers, as well as the Sharon Hill Borough Police Department.
Bruce Castor, the attorney representing the family, said the borough failed the entire community: The officers, Castor said, were not properly trained to handle chaotic situations involving gunfire, a lack of skill that contributed to the shooting of Fanta.
"It's one thing to stand there and shoot at a target. It's another thing to have all sorts of noise, people around, good guys and bad guys, and the chaos of a gun battle going on," Castor said after Thursday's court hearing. "Police officers need to be trained to deal with that type of situation, and I've seen no evidence that happened."
Even so, he said, the Bility family was pleased with the outcome of the criminal case, a resolution he said he had helped negotiate over 14 months.
"These people, while they are shy and humble here, there is a core of steel that goes through them," he said.
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