Two Pennsylvania teens are staring down first-degree murder charges after a bullet killed 8-year-old Fanta Bility outside of a high school football game in August this year.
Neither Angelo "A.J." Ford, 16, nor Hasein Strand, 18, fired that fatal shot. A police officer did, but the two teens were charged under the concept of transferred intent, which allows the state to prosecute someone for a crime he didn't technically commit if it happened during the commission of a related offense.
On August 27, Ford allegedly threatened Strand and his friends with a handgun at an Academy Park High School football game, prompting Strand to retrieve his own firearm from his vehicle. Ford opened fire and Strand responded in kind; a nearby victim was ultimately wounded in the gunfire.
That victim was not Bility, who died when an identified Sharon Hill cop shot her in the back after three officers began shooting at a car that they reportedly believed was involved in the shooting between Ford and Strand. The bullets from the police also struck Bility's older sister and two other bystanders, who survived.
The charges against the two teens have revived an under-the-radar debate about the doctrine of transferred intent, a controversial approach that some say grants the state too much latitude to sweep people up in prosecutions for crimes they did not commit. That's complicated here by the fact that the actual shooter in question was another agent of the government.
It would not be the first time that police have used the legal doctrine to deflect responsibility onto someone else for a tragic accident. An Idaho woman was recently charged with manslaughter after a police officer killed another police officer with his vehicle while responding to the woman's apparent mental health crisis. Though an internal investigation revealed that the officers had failed to follow safety protocols that evening, Jenna Holm spent over a year in jail awaiting trial on that homicide charge. A judge eventually struck the charge down as unconstitutional.
Observers will likely find this story less cut and dry; having a mental health crisis on the side of the road is obviously not the same thing as engaging in a gunfight. But it remains a matter of debate whether the two teens should be prosecuted solely for the crimes they allegedly committed—aggravated assault and gun charges—as opposed to the first-degree intentional murder of someone everyone acknowledges they did not actually kill.
The doctrine of transferred intent is inherent to the contentious felony murder rule. It's how, for example, prosecutors in Ohio were able to zero in on a teenager for the murder of her boyfriend after a police officer killed him during a botched robbery. Though the state conceded the obvious—that 16-year-old Masonique Saunders hadn't pulled the trigger—they pinned the killing on her because she allegedly helped him plan that burglary. She ultimately pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Bility's family has filed a civil suit against the officers and the police department. It's questionable that her family members will ever get the opportunity to state their case before a jury, as they will need to overcome qualified immunity, the doctrine that shields government officials from lawsuits if the way they allegedly violated someone's rights has not yet been "clearly established" in a prior court decision. So, too, will they face an uphill battle in suing the department, as the Monell doctrine will require they prove that the government had a specific policy in place that explicitly propagated the behavior that evening.
"I want the focus to remain on the Sharon Hill police officers whose negligent and reckless behavior in reacting as they did is what killed Fanta Bility," Bruce Castor, an attorney for the family, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "From the point of view of the Bility family, these officers killed Fanta, and they need to be held accountable for that, and those responsible for their supervision and training need to be held accountable for that."