PHILADELPHIA — Three fired police officers who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in the death of an 8-year-old girl when they opened fire outside a high school football game near Philadelphia have been sentenced to five years probation, the first 11 months from under house arrest.
An investigation found that officers negligently fired 25 shots at a car they mistakenly thought was involved in a shooting that broke out a block away as spectators were leaving the August 2021 soccer game. In all, four people were hit by shots from the police who sped past the car.
Deputy District Attorney Doug Rhoads, speaking Friday in Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, said the officers displayed a «horrific amount of recklessness» even if the result was unintentional.
Sharon Hill’s former agents Brian Devaney, Devon Smith and Sean Dolan pleaded guilty to 10 counts of reckless endangerment in a November plea deal that dismissed manslaughter charges filed against them. Authorities said they could not determine which officer fired the shot that killed Fanta Bility.
Fanta and her mother had gone to the game at Academy Park High School to watch a sister perform as a cheerleader. The sister, then 12 years old, was grazed by a police bullet. Fanta died in the arms of her mother.
“For some of the brothers, I think there is a little bit of survivor guilt,” Rhoads said. «No one expects to go to a high school football game as a family and not all come home.»
Friday’s sentencing capped an emotional 90-minute hearing during which the defendants spoke directly with extended family, who had immigrated to the US to seek safety in war-torn Liberia.
Smith, 35, a native of Jamaica, said he had met Fanta and her brother on a playground when they were playing basketball, and later spoke to her several times during the patrol.
“She would come up to my vehicle, and we would stand there and talk,” Smith told the family while offering condolences and an apology. “I am a father of three. I can’t imagine the pain and agony you feel every day.»
The family said their still-evolving grief takes many forms. The brother no longer wants to go to the playground.
Still, they accepted the officers’ apologies and extended a pardon, remaining in court to hug the three men and wish them well.
“We forgive, but we will not forget Fanta Bility,” said the mother, Tenneh Kromah. The family has a pending federal lawsuit against the defendants and the police department.
However, they do not believe the case fits the national narrative that has been simmering since 2020 about race and surveillance. Delaware County Judge Margaret J. Amoroso applauded both sides for not inflaming the rhetoric surrounding the case.
“This is not about blue lives or black lives, this is about Fanta’s life, and that her life did indeed matter,” Rhoads said, speaking on behalf of the family.
The officers said they opened fire after feeling the shots “hissing” past their heads.
“The conduct that placed me before your honor was a split-second decision,” said Devaney, 43, who had been a school resource officer at Academy Park since 2013.
He was not wearing a body camera that night, and the other two officers did not turn on their cameras, investigators found.
The handling of the case initially sparked outrage and protest from the black community and others, as District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer charged two black teenagers who participated in shootings a block away, prompting a police response, with the child’s death. Those charges were later dropped. After a grand jury investigation, the officers were charged with voluntary and involuntary manslaughter along with endangerment charges.
Dolan, 26, had joined Sharon Hill’s department just 10 days earlier, after graduating from the state police academy. He now works in the heating and air conditioning business.
“I was doing the best I could to do the right thing, and I came up short. I’m so sorry,” said Dolan, who, like Devaney, comes from a family of police officers.
Dozens of family and friends came to court to support the officers.