The Delaware County district attorney announced on Tuesday that three officers involved in the August death of 8-year-old Fanta Bility outside of a high school football game near Philadelphia have been charged with 12 counts of manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
A two-month grand jury investigation resulted in the filing of criminal charges against Sharon Hill Police Department officers Devon Smith, 33, Sean Dolan, 25, and Brian Devaney, 41, who started firing on a car in the middle of a crowd.
“Police have to be held accountable as everybody else is for deadly force,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in a news conference.
Stollsteimer’s office also dropped murder charges against the two teen boys who started the deadly conflict on Aug. 27. Angelo “AJ” Ford, 16, and Husein Strand, 18, were both charged with first-degree murder in Bility’s death, despite the fact that prosecutors determined their bullets did not kill the young girl or injure any of the other four shooting victims.
The charges against the teens caused outrage among activists and members of the local community, who described them as “a ruse to distract from the terrible decisions police officers made that day – and to allow them to evade scrutiny.”
The district attorney clarified on Tuesday that Ford and Strand are still charged with aggravated assault in connection with the shootings.
Strand “accepted responsibility for his role in this tragedy,” according to Stollsteimer, by pleading guilty to aggravated assault for injuring a child bystander during the gunfight and illegal possession of a firearm. He will be imprisoned in a state correctional facility for 2 1/2 to 5 years.
Following a football game at Academy Park High School, Ford and Strand were involved in a heated verbal exchange that accelerated into a violent altercation. According to investigators, the argument resulted in shots being fired, which drew the three officers’ attention to the location of the gunfire.
As Billy and her family, as well as crowds of others leaving the game, were in the same area, all three fired their weapons more than a dozen times at a passing car.
The officers also injured Bility’s older sister, Mamasu Bility, 12, who suffered a graze wound to her neck during the chaos of the shootout, according to the Delaware Valley Journal. Alona Ellison-Acosta was shot in the foot, and Anya Kellan received a graze wound to her ankle, according to the newspaper.
Officials thought initially it was either Ford or Strand who hit Bility, but this proved to be wrong.
“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 district attorney’s office said in a statement.
“They picked the wrong target, they shot in the wrong direction at it, and they shot as that target was moving through a crowd of people. And that is why Fanta Bility is dead,” Stollsteimer said on Tuesday.
Through their lawyer, Bruce Castor, the Bility family thanked the district attorney’s office “for following the evidence and the law in bringing forth these charges.”
“From the beginning [Stollsteimer] assured them that he would seek justice for Fanta, and today’s charges indicate that he’s done exactly that,” Castor said, adding that “they made the right call.”
NPR member station WHYY reported that “on hearing the word of the charges, the Sharon Hill Borough Council announced in a statement that it plans on voting to fire the officers.”
Devaney, Dolan, and Smith were taken into custody on $500,000 bail. It’s unclear whether any or all of them have been publicly disclosed. Attorneys for the three officers did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment.
They are planning to appear in court on January 27 for a preliminary hearing.