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Funeral is held for U.S. Airman Roger Fortson as family calls for justice

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Funeral services were held today for U.S. senior airman Roger Fortson. He was fatally shot by a Florida sheriff's deputy two weeks ago. The family mourned the 23-year-old in Stone Crest, Ga. They maintained that Fortson, who was Black, was unjustifiably killed in his home by an officer who the sheriff's office says fired in self defense. Adrian Andrews from member station WFSU in Tallahassee reports.

ADRIAN ANDREWS, BYLINE: Friday's funeral service was held at a church in Stone Crest, Ga., near Atlanta, where Fortson's mother, Mika Fortson, lives. The AP livestreamed the funeral.

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing, inaudible).

ANDREWS: Hundreds of Air Force members in their dress blues along with family and friends packed into the new Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where Fortson's body lay in an open casket. With an American flag draped over the coffin, Fortson's family and friends took the stage to offer their condolences and share testimonies about the young trooper. His sister, Raven Wilburn, says while he was younger than her, he was almost a father figure to her, protective and wise beyond his years.

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RAVEN WILBURN: I thought Roger was the coolest person in the world. I used to just watch him, how he would talk and smile. I was so proud of my brother. And he was so humble, but every now and then, he would tell you who he was.

ANDREWS: Senior Commander Colonel Patrick Dierig from the Special Operations Unit in Fort Walton Beach, where Fortson worked, spoke of his commitment to serving his country and how welcoming he was.

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PATRICK DIERIG: He had that infectious smile, and he welcomed me back home without a word spoken. And that was Roger - kind, confident, a smile that can light up the room.

ANDREWS: Others who spoke at the funeral included Reverend Al Sharpton and civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Crump is representing Fortson's family, who say it isn't true that the officer who shot Fortson fired in self-defense, as the Okaloosa Sheriff's Office has claimed.

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BEN CRUMP: We got to say, no, we will not let that lie stand. We will stand on the truth.

ANDREWS: Bodycam footage and dispatch audio reveals the Okaloosa deputy, who still hasn't been named publicly, was responding to a disturbance call from Fortson's apartment building. It's not clear who made the call, and on the dispatch audio, the deputy tells the dispatcher that his information about a disturbance between a male and a female came fourthhand.

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UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: Don't have any further other than a male and female. It's all fourth-party information through the front desk.

ANDREWS: It's all fourth-party information through the front desk, he says. Crump and Fortson's family say that the deputy went to the wrong apartment. The Okaloosa Sheriff's Office has denied that. The bodycam footage shows Fortson answering the door with a firearm pointing at the ground. Crump says the gun was legally owned by Fortson, and he was in his legal rights to answer the door of his own home holding it. The deputy then shot him multiple times before telling him to drop his weapon. On Thursday, Fortson's mother, Mika Fortson vowed during an emotional news conference to get justice for her son.

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MIKA FORTSON: Fix his reputation. Tell the truth, and give my child justice.

ANDREWS: Florida Department of Law Enforcement is currently investigating the incident. The Okaloosa Sheriff's Office says it's reserving judgment on the officer until the investigation is over.

For NPR News, I'm Adrian Andrews in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Andrews
[Copyright 2024 WFSU]