In a case that has haunted Philadelphia for 11 years, a federal jury yesterday found the city liable for the fiery confrontation between the police and the radical group MOVE, an all-day standoff that left 11 people, including six children, dead and a city block in ashes.
After nine days of deliberations, the jury said the city had used excessive force and violated MOVE's constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure when the police dropped a bomb on the group's fortified rowhouse in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. The bomb ignited a fire that destroyed 61 other rowhouses in a black working-class section of Philadelphia, a neighborhood of schoolteachers, small-shop owners, ministers and police officers.
The eight-member jury ordered the city to pay $1.5 million to the only adult survivor of the bombing, Ramona Africa, and to the relatives of two other group members -- its founder, John Africa, and his nephew Frank -- who died in the blaze. Ms. Africa was awarded $400,000 for pain and suffering and $100,000 for disfigurement and burns suffered in the fire.
The city must pay the $1.5 million. But former Fire Commissioner William Richmond and former Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor were ordered to pay $1 per week each for the next 11 years to the plaintiffs.
For Ms. Africa, 41, who was badly burned in the fire, the verdict was a blow against the heavy hand of state police power.
Larry Charfoos, a lawyer and an expert on civil litigation, said the city and the former officials had gotten off easy.
"This jury did not punish the defendants," Charfoos said in a telephone interview. "The jury treated this case as a routine personal injury case. Not as an outrage. An outrage would have been at least $5 million. Maybe Americans are getting a little tired of people who want to stand off the authorities."
For the past two months, while the trial was under way, Philadelphia has had to relive one of the worst nights in its history, which began early in the morning of Mother's Day, May 13, 1985.
At that time, a small army of police officers surrounded MOVE's fortified rowhouse at 6221 Osage Ave. The police had arrest warrants for several members, including Ms. Africa, on charges that were eventually dropped after the fire.
A city commission impaneled after the bombing determined that the police had come armed to the teeth, with a variety of firepower, including C-4, a military explosive, which they dropped from a helicopter onto MOVE's rooftop.
For two years before the bombing, there was sharp tension between MOVE and its neighbors on Osage. Group members would often broadcast profanity-laced statements over a loudspeaker, demanding that nine members imprisoned for the 1978 slaying of a Philadelphia police officer during another standoff be given a new trial.
The neighbors had been pressuring the city for months to do something about the group's broadcasts and other disruptions.
"But we didn't believe the police should have come in here like it was World War III," said a neighbor whose house burned down in the fire. "Those children in that house weren't criminals."
Ms. Africa and a 13-year-old boy then known as Birdie Africa were the only people in the rowhouse who escaped the flames. Birdie Africa, who now goes by the name Michael Ward, earlier settled his claim against the city for $1.7 million.
Ms. Africa said in the interview yesterday that money was never the reason why she fought so long to get the city in court.
"We were determined to do our part to hold these officials accountable for what they did," she said. "I knew that no matter how things turned out, MOVE could not lose."
Pub Date: 6/25/96