It began, prosecutors say, when two teenage boys, carrying a grudge between them and the guns to settle it, exchanged gunfire outside a high school football stadium just as a game was winding down in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
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. The two teenage boys have been charged with first-degree murder for setting in motion the events that led to the death of the girl, a daughter of West African immigrants who was attending the game to watch her sister, a cheerleader, and her cousin, one of the football players.
The decision by prosecutors to charge the two teenagers, even though they did not fire the shot that killed the girl, while allowing the police officers involved to keep their jobs, has stirred outrage in the community and angered her family who worry that the police will ultimately 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 its 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 said the family believed that the charges were a smoke screen designed to shield the police from legal consequences for killing Fanta. (The family, through Mr. Castor, declined to comment.)
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 on the evening of Aug. 27 just as the last minutes were ticking off the clock of the season-opening football game at Academy Park High School. Spectators were already streaming for the exits. 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. On the field, players hit the ground seeking safety.
Prosecutors say a dispute had erupted during the game between the two boys — one 16, the other 18 — and their group of friends. They say one of them flashed a gun nestled in his waistband as he left the game and later pulled it out and began shooting toward the other group of teenagers. The other boy, having run to his car to retrieve a 9-millimeter Taurus pistol, returned fire and wounded a bystander, a witness told investigators.
A group of police officers, about 140 feet away, fired 25 shots in return, killing Fanta and wounding three other people, including an 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, in an investigation published in August, reported on several similar cases around the country. Often in these cases, prosecutors invoked the so-called felony murder rule, which in some states allows for murder charges against someone who committed a felony that resulted in death, even if the person had no intent of killing someone.
In one case, in 2019 in Phoenix, police officers pulled over a car because they suspected the four occupants of committing a robbery. When one of them fled, the police shot him dead. The three others were charged with murder, while the police were not held accountable.
As the legal process plays out, State Senator Anthony H. Williams, whose district includes Sharon Hill, has asked for 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 reformed, but to be dramatically changed. It’s mind-boggling.”