Attorneys representing ex-Sharon Hill police officers want manslaughter charges dismissed in Fanta Bility case

File photo: Robin Markle holds up a painting of Fanta Bility – an 8-year-old shot and killed by police in August, 2021 – at a rally outside the Delaware County Courthouse demanding charges against the officers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: Robin Markle holds up a painting of Fanta Bility – an 8-year-old shot and killed by police in August, 2021 – at a rally outside the Delaware County Courthouse demanding charges against the officers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Attorneys for the three former Sharon Hill police officers charged with killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility and wounding three others made a motion Monday to have two of the most serious charges dismissed.

The defense argued that the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office did not produce enough evidence at the preliminary hearing to allow the case for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges to go forward.

Delaware County Judge Margaret Amoroso is giving both sides more time to submit written arguments. The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16.

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“The family is anxious for both criminal and civil justice,” said Bruce Castor, the attorney representing the Bility family in civil litigation against the borough and the police department.

Devon Smith, Sean Dolan, and Brian Devaney currently face 12 criminal counts each of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment for firing their weapons near a crowd after hearing gunshots nearby following an Academy Park High School football game in August 2021. A ballistics analysis determined that the shot that killed Bility came from one of the officers’ weapons.

In November, the DA’s office charged teens Angelo Ford and Hasein Strand with first-degree murder for getting into an argument at the football game and allegedly firing shots at each other near the stadium.

Following a grand jury investigation, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer brought criminal charges against the former police officers in January and withdrew the murder charges against the teens. After preliminary hearings, the defense attorneys have now made a motion to have the biggest charges tossed.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on their stance. Lawyers representing the former officers did not respond to a request for comment.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Monday that the defense argued that the officers were not responsible for Fanta’s death and that they were being unfairly targeted “because of their profession.” The basis of their motion centered around their belief that Ford and Strand started a domino effect. The DA’s office pushed back at the defense’s motion.

Castor said that this is a difficult case to litigate, because the prosecution can’t conclusively determine which officer fired the fatal round.

“The criminal law punishes people for bad conduct. If you are unable to determine whose bad conduct caused Fanta Bility’s death, it becomes difficult for the prosecutor to convince a court that the criminal law is the appropriate forum,” Castor said.

As a former Montgomery County District Attorney, Castor believes that the criminal case and the civil case do not necessarily complement each other. His logic is that the more “liable” the former officers are, the less it is the borough’s fault for providing proper use of force training.

Nevertheless, he reiterated that the Bility family is more concerned with justice than anything else.

“The more serious charges going forward make the civil case harder. But these are people of principle, and they want criminal justice first, and then they will worry about civil damages,” Castor said.

An independent investigation conducted by the law firm Fox-Rothschild LLP into the Sharon Hill Police Department procedures following the shooting has been completed and was submitted to the borough in June.

While the report is supposed to be released by the end of the week, Castor questioned why the borough would sit on the report for nearly two months without immediately sharing it with the public or the family. He still has not seen it.

“But if the report says that the borough failed to make certain that the officers understood use-of-force protocols and failed to test that they knew that and failed to keep their skills under simulated conditions sharp, that will mean that the borough is in deep trouble civilly as long as intentional criminal conduct is not found in the criminal court,” Castor said.

Pointing to the possibility of appeals in both cases, he said it will likely take a long time before any improvements to the lives of the family and surviving victims will happen.

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