Prosecutors claim that it started when two teenage boys with a grudge and the guns to resolve it, exchanged gunfire in front of a high-school football stadium as a Philadelphia game was about to end.
It ended with the death of an 8-year-old girl named Fanta Bility — killed not by the two boys, but by a barrage of bullets unleashed by three police officers on the scene, who began firing toward a car they mistakenly believed was the source of the gunshots.
Now, more than two months after the fatal police shooting that shook the small town of Sharon Hill, criminal charges have been brought in the case — but not against the three officers. Two teenage boys were charged with first degree murder in connection to the tragic death of the girl. The girls, who was from West Africa, was there to watch her sister cheerleading and her cousin, one football player.
Prosecutors decided to charge the teenagers even though they didn’t fire the fatal shot. This angered the girl’s family, who fear that the police will evade accountability.
The charges rely on a legal theory known as “transferred intent,” which prosecutors believe applies in this case because they say the two teenagers had intended to kill each other, and the result of their actions was Fanta’s death. But experts say prosecutors are stretching the definition of “transferred intent” and could have difficulty making the charges stand up in court.
Prosecutors say that the police role in Fanta’s death is still under investigation and that a grand jury will begin reviewing the case on Nov. 18 “so that it may be determined whether the police officers’ use of deadly force was justified,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer of Delaware County said in a statement.
“I ask for the community’s continued patience as the grand jury undertakes it’s investigation,” he said.
Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who studies police violence, said, “It sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors to deflect from police accountability.” He added, “It makes no sense to shoot into a moving vehicle.”
Bruce L. Castor Jr., the lawyer for the Bility family, who has filed a lawsuit on its behalf against the city of Sharon Hill and its police department, said the girl’s parents were angered to see the charges against the teenagers. He stated that the family believed that the charges were a smokescreen designed to shield the police against any legal consequences for Fanta’s murder. (The family declined to comment through Ms. Castor.
Mr. Castor, a former acting attorney general of Pennsylvania who was one of former President Donald J. Trump’s defense lawyers during his second impeachment trial, said he believed that a conviction of the two teenagers would be difficult at trial.
“I’m surprised that the district attorney was that aggressive but I certainly wish him well,” Mr. Castor said. “I don’t immediately see how the doctrine of transferred intent applies under these circumstances.”
The shootings began just as the final minutes of the season-opening Academy Park High School football game were ending. The exits were already being sought by spectators. On the radio, the announcer was giving the final score — a 42-0 win for the home team — when bursts of gunfire could be heard. Players ran to safety on the field.
Prosecutors say a dispute had erupted during the game between the two boys — one 16, the other 18 — and their group of friends. One of the boys allegedly pulled out a gun from his waistband and started shooting at the other group of teenagers. A witness said that another boy, who ran to his car in search of a Taurus 9-millimeter pistol, fired back at the victim and injured him.
A group of officers about 140 feet away fired 25 shots back, killing Fanta, and injuring three others, including her older sister.
The gunfight between the two teenagers, Mr. Stollsteimer said in the statement, “precipitated the responsive discharge of weapons by police officers stationed near the entrance to the football stadium.”
The case, experts say, reflects one of the less-discussed ways that the law can shield the police from accountability — when officers kill someone but murder charges are brought against others who were on the scene and may have participated in separate criminal acts that instigated the police response.
“The main issue here is that the police were negligent and breached their duty by showing up and shooting into a crowd,” said Dan Kozieja, of Delco Resists, a local social justice organization formed last year in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. “Now they are trying to take the easy route out by pinning this murder on two young boys rather than taking accountability for their actions.”
BuzzFeed News published an August investigation that covered several similar cases across the country. In these cases, prosecutors often invoke the so-called “felony murder rule”, which allows murder charges to be brought against someone who has committed a felony that results in death in certain states.
One case was in Phoenix in 2019, when police officers pulled over a vehicle because they suspected that the four occupants were committing a robbery. The police shot one of the suspects dead after he fled. The three other men were charged with murder. However, the police were not held liable.
State Senator Anthony H. Williams, who represents Sharon Hill in the legal process, has requested calm.
Mr. Williams said he felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” when the charges were announced, since he said he had been in discussions about the case with the district attorney’s office.
“They were not the individuals who shot the little girl,” he said. “How in God’s name you can go from not charging individuals who were involved to charging individuals who were not involved is an exclamation point for the system to be changed. Not reform, but to be drastically changed. It’s mind-boggling.”
Source: NY Times