A Common Pleas judge upheld manslaughter charges against three former Sharon Hill police officers earlier this week in the death of 8-year-old Fanta Bility. She denied a motion by the officers’ defense lawyer to have them dismissed.
The 8-year-old girl was leaving a football game on Aug. 27, 2021, when she was struck by bullets allegedly fired by officers Devon Smith, Brian Devaney, and Sean Dolan. According to a report from the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, the officers fired after they heard shots nearby.
The defense attorneys argued the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office had not proven that any of the officers fired the shot that killed the child. However, Judge Margaret Amoroso upheld all the charges against the three men, who were terminated by the borough council shortly after the incident.
Fanta had attended the Academy Park High School game with her mother and older sister, who was also hit by a bullet but survived. Two other people were also wounded.
“We are pleased with decision and look forward to continuing the process of seeking justice for Fanta,” said District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.
Although the bullet that struck Fanta was recovered and linked to her through DNA analysis, and it was the type of ammunition used by the police, it could not be matched to any specific officer’s gun and “could not be tied to any one of the defendants’ service weapons to the exclusion of the others,” the defense attorneys argued in their motion.
Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., who represents the Bility family, said, “The family commends the outstanding work of the District Attorney’s Office in convincing the Court of the strength of the evidence and of the Commonwealth’s theory of the case. The district attorney, Mr. Stollsteimer himself, kept us informed at every step. He and his assistants are doing an excellent job in the face of a forensically challenging case for their office.”
According to a redacted report released by the borough, the two men, “A.J. Ford and Hasein Strand who reportedly had been at the game. Witnesses described Ford as firing the first shots from a .45 caliber semi-automatic firearm from the area of 909 Coates Street west toward Ridley Street. He fired at least five times toward Hasein Strand. Strand then returned fire by shooting a 9mm semi-automatic firearm from approximately 919 Coates Street east toward the 800 block of Coates Street where pedestrians were leaving the football game and where (the three officers) were positioned. One of the projectiles fired by Strand struck an unintended target.”
Strand and Ford also face charges related to the shooting.
Castor, a former Montgomery County district attorney, said, “They are being prosecuted for attempting to shoot one another and hitting a bystander or bystanders. Unlike the police, these two men acted with bad ‘criminal intent’ and should suffer the consequences.”
“That their action ignited a chain of events that led to Fanta’s death and the wounding of Fanta’s sister, in my view, ought to be an aggravating factor that enhances their sentences,” he said.
Asked what was next for the case against the former officers, Castor said, “The defense will consider asking the judge to agree to allow them to appeal her decision immediately to Superior Court. Ordinarily, the court would not allow that and the defense would have to wait until the case was over if the defendants were convicted on the manslaughter charge.
“If the judge says ‘no’ on the appeal now, the defense could try to appeal anyway, but I have never seen that work out. The defendants are not in prison and are facing other charges anyway requiring a trial to resolve now or later. If the judge here says she will not approve an appeal, what possible reason would the Superior Court have to reverse her decision? Try the case and appeal the pre-trial ruling from Monday if they lose. I think the lawyers for both sides will start getting the case ready to go.”
He praised both the defense and prosecution’s handling of the case.
“When speaking of all the charges taken together, the case will come down to whether a jury thinks incompetent training and supervision of the shooters creates a reasonable doubt in a criminal case,” Castor said.
Castor said, “Sharon Hill’s refusal to release the unredacted (Kelley) Hodge report can only mean Sharon Hill’s officials are concealing findings concerning the borough’s inept training and supervision of the officers.”
But that might benefit the officers in their criminal trial.
“We criminally punish people in this country for intentionally doing ‘bad things.’ But here, if the police officers did something ‘bad’ because they were not taught any better in their Borough training, that negates to some degree whether the criminal law ought to punish them or not. A judge and jury may have to sort that out. Certainly, the lawyers are wrestling with it. ‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is the toughest standard we have in the law.
“This case presents a law bar exam question on the government’s burden of proof, and what the law punishes people for thinking and doing in a criminal case as opposed to what the law punishes people or entities for doing in a civil case,” he said.
The lawyers for the three officers did not return calls for comment.