May 05, 2023
Three fired Sharon Hill police officers were sentenced to five years of probation Friday for fatally shooting Fanta Bility as she left a high school football game with her family in August 2021.
Former officers Devon Smith, Sean Dolan and Brian Devaney pleaded guilty in November to charges of reckless endangerment. Their plea agreements with Delaware County prosecutors included dropping more serious manslaughter charges. Reckless endangerment carries a maximum penalty of up to two years in prison in Pennsylvania.
Bility, 8, was killed Aug. 27, 2021 after attending an Academy Park High School football game with her family at Knight Park. As fans left the stadium, the three officers heard gunshots about a block away and then fired 25 shots at a vehicle as it passed a crowd of people exiting the stadium. The officers mistakenly believed the car had been connected to the initial gunfire, investigators said.
Bility, who was among the crowd, was struck once in the back and died at the scene in her mother's arms. Her 13-year-old sister and two other people also suffered injuries from gunfire that authorities determined came from police officers. Prosecutors could not identity which of the three officers fired the shot that killed Bility, a third grader at the Sharon Hill School.
Bility's death and the handling of the case sparked outrage in the Sharon Hill community and beyond, and borough officials promised a thorough evaluation of the department's use of force policies.
"My little sister, she was very caring, very kind, very outgoing. She was very sweet also," Bility's older sister, Mawatta, told reporters outside the Delaware County Courthouse in Media on Friday. "I speak for her and I speak for her future, and although she's not here with us today, she is forever in our hearts, and she will forever be by our sides."
She added, "I would also like to say that I forgive the officers on behalf of my family."
The initial shots fired outside Knight Park stemmed from a dispute between two teenagers, who also had attended the game. That gunfire wounded a 13-year-old boy, who testified that he had heard no more than five gunshots from the exchange of bullets that resulted in his injuries, according to a grand jury report.
The officers involved in Bility's death were fired days after being charged in the shootings. They were awaiting trial when they reached the plea deal.
The decision to pursue charges against the officers came after a review of witness testimony, photos from the scene and ballistics evidence linking Bility's death and the other injuries to the way police responded to the initial shooting, prosecutors said.
Devaney was not wearing a body camera on the night of the shooting. The body cameras worn by Smith and Dolan were recovered by detectives, but did not include any footage of the two bursts of gunfire that night, investigators said. Body cameras worn by Sharon Hill police are manually activated by officers.
Bility and her sister, a cheerleader, had turned with other spectators to run back into the stadium along a footpath as the police gunfire erupted, authorities said. The other two people struck by police also had been part of the panicked crowd trying to get back into Knight Park.
The reckless endangerment charges against Smith, Dolan and Devaney also listed the names of three Sharon Hill officers as victims because they were standing in the path of the gunfire.
Prosecutors initially charged the two teens involved in the initial gunfire with murder for the chain of events that led to Bility's death. The homicide charges were withdrawn in January 2022 after the grand jury completed its investigation into the police officers' use of force.
The teens were charged with other crimes. Hasein Strand, 18, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and illegal possession of a firearm, the D.A.'s office said. Angelo "AJ" Ford was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and weapons offenses for allegedly firing at Strand. Ford escaped from a youth facility last year and was arrested on a bench warrant in February.
Last August, an investigative report led by former Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge was released in a heavily redacted form, providing little insight into the changes recommended for the police department. Sharon Hill Borough Council said the 55-page report's key findings were kept from the public to avoid interfering with the judicial process in the case involving the three former officers.
At the time the report was released, protesters marched in Sharon Hill to demand more transparency in the borough's investigation of the shooting. Officials have not indicated whether the full report will be made public after the sentencing.
The Bility family, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2004 to seek new opportunities, also filed a federal lawsuit against Sharon Hill Borough, the police chief and the three former officers. The family is being represented by former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor.