Three Pennsylvania officers have turned themselves in to authorities after a grand jury decided to bring charges against them in the death of an 8-year-old killed during a firefight they had with two teens.
Sharon Hill police officers Brian Devaney, Sean Dolan and Devon Smith, were charged Tuesday with one count each of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of Fanta Bility, and 10 counts of reckless endangerment for injuries caused to at least three other people, including Bility’s older sister.
The shooting occurred on August 27, 2021 just outside of the Academic Park High School football field shortly before 9 p.m. It began when a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old got into a verbal altercation. After it escalated into gunfire between the pair, two of the bullets were fired in the direction of the officers, prompting them to return fire.
In doing so, however, the officers struck several bystanders who were leaving the venue at the conclusion of the football game in Sharon Hill, a small borough just west of Philadelphia.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer first blamed the two Black teenagers for Bility’s death because it was their actions that led cops to fire their service weapons. However, Stollsteimer faced overwhelming criticism from local civil rights groups for charging them with first-degree murder, a crime that could have put them in prison for life, even though a preliminary investigation that concluded less than a week after the shooting found they may not have fired the fatal shot.
After two months of deliberating, the jury came to the conclusion that the police officers should be charged for the death and injuries.
“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,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in a press release 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.”
The oldest of the two teens pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and illegal possession of a firearm. He faces 32 to 64 months in prison. The younger of the two boys still faces charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault, gun possession charges, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office told VICE News.
Devaney, Dolan and Smith have been on paid administrative leave since last August. Attorneys for the three officers, Charles Gibbs, Steven Patton, and Raymond Driscoll, released a joint statement criticizing Stollsteimer’s decision.
“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,” the attorneys said. “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.”
Their bail has been set at $500,000, according to the district attorney. They are expected to make their first appearance in Springfield District Court on January 27. With Tuesday’s announcement, the Sharon Hill Borough Council will vote on their future with the department on Thursday.
The Sharon Hill Police Department did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.
Bruce L. Castor Jr., the attorney representing the Bility family told VICE News that the family is happy with the district attorney’s decision.
“They knew that the best that could possibly come out of the investigation would be a charge of manslaughter and that’s exactly what happened,” Castor Jr. said. “Now of course the District Attorney’s office has to win the case, but the Bility family will be cheering for them.”
In the last year, it has become more common for police officers to get charged, and in some cases even convicted, for reckless, violent, and dangerous actions while on duty, regardless of their intent. Both Derek Chauvin, the man who killed George Floyd, and the men who tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on Ahmaud Arbery, are serving long-term prison sentences for murder as a result of their actions.