PHILADELPHIA (CNN) — Eleven years after police dropped a bomb on a row house occupied by the anti-government group MOVE, a jury has ordered the city of Philadelphia and two former city officials to pay $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of two members of the group who died in the subsequent fire.
The jury found that the city, former Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor and former Fire Commissioner William Richmond used excessive force and violated the MOVE members’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure in the May 13, 1985 incident.
MOVE is a loose-knit, mostly black group whose members all adopted the surname Africa, advocated a “back-to-nature” lifestyle and preached against technology. In 1985, members of the group began blaring profane anti-government messages over a loudspeaker from their row house in an effort to free nine members who had been convicted of killing a police officer.
MOVE’s neighbors complained that members constantly harassed passersby, that the stench of human and animal feces was overwhelming the neighborhood, and that MOVE members had been seen with weapons.
Police officers arrived at the MOVE home at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia on the morning of May 13, 1985 to serve arrest warrants on four MOVE members, and were met with gunfire, authorities said. Police fired back, touching off a 90-minute gun battle.
Later that day, police dropped the bomb on the MOVE row house from a state police helicopter. The bomb missed its target — a fortified bunker on the roof — and started a fire that burned an entire city block.
The plaintiffs contended that then-Police Commissioner Sambor and then-Fire Commissioner Richmond, who were on the scene, agreed to let the fire burn.
The fire destroyed 61 row houses, including MOVE’s, and left 250 people homeless. Of the 11 people killed in the fire, five were children.
The civil suit, filed after years of legal skirmishes, named the city of Philadelphia, Sambor and Richmond. The former Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, was found by a judge to be exempt from charges.
In Monday’s verdict, Ramona Africa, 40 — the only adult to survive the fire — was awarded $500,000 for pain and suffering and injuries. Relatives of the group’s founder John Africa and his nephew Frank James Africa, who died in the incident, were awarded a total of $1 million.
The jury ordered that Ramona Africa also receive $1 per week for 11 years directly from Sambor and Richmond, and that the other plaintiffs receive similar token amounts.
“Money don’t have nothing to do with this,” Ramona Africa said after the verdict. “… This is about taking a stand for all people so that this government knows that the people ain’t gonna have them bombing people and burning people alive.” (369K AIFF (http://www.cnn.com/US/9606/24/move.vertict/damn.money.aiff) or WAV (http://www.cnn.com/US/9606/24/move.vertict/damn.money.wav) sound)
Defense attorney Judith Harris said the defendents will make a decision about an appeal soon.
“I think from the city’s standpoint there are a number of issues that can be appealed,” she said. “The city will have to decide whether it wants to explore those.”
Every other case stemming from the confrontation was settled long ago. Relatives of the adult victims in the fire had collected $90,000 each and the city paid a total of $25 million to settle lawsuits filed by the parents of the five children who died.
Another $1.7 million was paid to Michael Moses Ward, known as “Birdie Africa” when he fled the MOVE house in 1985 at age 13.
A special commission, appointed by then-Mayor Goode concluded that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable,” however no criminal charges were filed. Ramona Africa was convicted of riot and conspiracy in connection with the confrontation and served seven years in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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