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Crump seeks truth after Black airman killed at Florida home by White deputy

Renowned civil rights lawyer has reason for concern after Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office engaged in a shootout six months ago because deputy mistook a falling acorn for gunshot

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A 23-year-old Air Force airman’s family wants an explanation after he was shot to death in Florida, in yet another instance where police have killed a Black person minding his own business in his own home.

The death of Roger Fortson on May 3, only two days after his birthday, is disturbingly similar to other Black people killed in their homes in recent years by police, in circumstances that involved officers responding to the wrong address or responding to service calls with reckless uses of deadly force. Fortson, who lived five miles from Hurlburt Field, where he was stationed, was shot at least five times by an unidentified white Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy, who claimed he shot the airman in self-defense.

Fortson was taken to a local hospital, where he died. The deputy involved in the shooting was placed on administrative leave pending a mandatory investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump called on the sheriff’s department to acknowledge its error.

“When you make a mistake, you own up to it,” said Crump, who also represented Breonna Taylor, who was killed under broadly similar circumstances in Louisville, Ky., on March 13, 2020. The city and Taylor’s family reached a $12 million wrongful death settlement six months later.

“You don’t try to justify killing a good guy,” Crump continued. “The Okaloosa Sheriff’s Department needs to own up to this. Tell the truth.”

Okaloosa Sheriff Eric Aden disputed Crump’s claims that any mistake had been made, saying the deputy entered the correct house.

The Okaloosa sheriff’s office said it believed it was responding to a disturbance call, which is significant because on Christmas Eve in 2022, the department was “rocked to its core” — Eden’s words — when Corporal Ray Hamilton was killed by a domestic violence suspect who opened fire on responding deputies from inside his residence.

Fortson’s attorneys said the airman was alone in his apartment, talking to his girlfriend on a Facetime call, and should not have been a suspect because he “respected authority” and would have “never shot at a police officer.” Body cam footage seems to indicate Fortson came to the door with a gun in his right hand, but Crump said that Fortson was within his rights because Florida is a right-to-carry state. The deputy didn’t tell Fortson to drop his gun until after he’d already shot him.

The woman on the call with Fortson said she believed deputies entered the wrong apartment because the airman wasn’t causing a disturbance. His mother, Chantemekki Fortson, called her son “a patriot” as she clutched a framed photo of him in his Air Force uniform.

“They shot a good guy,” Crump said. “They killed a good guy. They took from the Air Force a good guy. They took from his mama a good guy. … We have to correct this narrative. Roger Fortson was the best America had to offer.”

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Reason for concern: The November nut case

Police in Okaloosa County have been known to get trigger-happy when they mistakenly believe their lives are in danger. Only six months ago, last Nov. 12, an Okaloosa deputy got into a heated shootout with an acorn — as in the fruit of an oak tree, which at last report lacks trigger fingers.

Deputy Jesse Hernandez was dealing with a detained man who was handcuffed, strapped in the back of a patrol vehicle, and already had been thoroughly frisked for weapons. But Hernandez heard an acorn drop onto his car and, instead of dismissing it as a harmless nut falling from an oak tree, got spooked and somehow mistook the sound for the detained man, Marquis Jackson, shooting at him. He yelled, “Shots fired!” and unloaded his semi-automatic pistol into the patrol car. A female deputy also joined in the shooting, thinking she was protecting Hernandez.

Jackson was unharmed by the gunshots, but the incident left him traumatized because Florida has a lot of nuts. Hernandez resigned as a result, while the female officer was judged to have justifiably tried to protect a fellow officer.

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“I know we will come to a peaceful resolution in this matter,” Aden said in a statement. “I told Mr. Fortson’s family this afternoon that they have my word, if the shooting is found to be unjustified their son’s name will be fully vindicated.”

But their son also will be fully dead. Just like in 2020, when Taylor was gunned down.

Just like in 2019, when a white former Fort Worth, Texas, officer, Aaron Dean, fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson through a rear window of her home after responding to a non-emergency call reporting that Jefferson’s front door was open. Dean was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

Just like in 2018, when a white former Dallas police officer fatally shot unarmed Botham Jean after mistaking his apartment for her own. Amber Guyger, the former officer, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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