DECATUR, Ga. – An environmental activist who was fatally shot in a confrontation with Georgia law enforcement in January was sitting cross-legged with their hands in the air at the time, the protester’s family said Monday as they released results of an autopsy they commissioned.
The family of Manuel Paez Terán held a news conference in Decatur to announce the findings and said they are filing an open-records lawsuit seeking to force Atlanta police to release more evidence about the Jan. 18 killing of Paez Terán, who went by the name Tortuguita and used the pronoun they.
The family’s attorneys said the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which has been probing the shooting for nearly two months, has prevented Atlanta police from releasing additional evidence to the family. The wooded area where Paez Terán was killed has long been dubbed “Cop City” by opponents who occupied the forest there to protest the 85-acre (34-hectare) tract being developed as a massive police and firefighter training facility.
“Manuel was looking death in the face, hands raised when killed,” civil rights attorney Brian Spears said, citing the autopy’s conclusions. “We do not stand here today telling you that we know what happened. The second autopsy is a snapshot of what happened, but it is not the whole story. What we want is simple: GBI, meet with the family and release the investigative report.”
In a statement, the bureau said it's preventing “inappropriate release of evidence” to preserve the investigation's integrity.
Paez Terán's death and their dedication to opposing the training center has vaulted the “Stop Cop City” movement onto the national and international stage, with leftist activists from across the country holding vigils and prompting some to travel and join the protest movement that began in 2021. A few protests have turned violent, including earlier this month when more than 150 masked activists left a nearby music festival and stormed the proposed site of the training center, setting fire to construction equipment and throwing rocks at retreating law enforcement officers.
Authorities have said officers fired on Paez Terán after the 26-year-old shot and seriously injured a state trooper while officers cleared activists from an Atlanta-area forest where officials plan to build the training center. The investigative bureau says it continues to back its initial assessment of what happened.
Paez Terán had been camping in the forest for months to oppose building “Cop City.” Their family and friends have said the activist practiced non-violence and have accused authorities of state-sanctioned murder.
The investigative bureau has said no body camera or dashcam footage of the shooting exists, and that ballistics evidence shows the injured trooper was shot with a bullet from a gun Paez Terán legally purchased in 2020.
Spears said the family commissioned a second autopsy after the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an initial one. Officials have not released the DeKalb County report, so it's unclear whether it reached a similar conclusion that Paez Terán had their hands raised, the palms facing inward at the time of the shooting.
“Manuel loved the forest,” their grieving mother, Belkis Terán, said. “It gave them peace. They meditiated there. The forest connected them with God. I never thought that Manuel could die in a meditation position.”
The family's autopsy report describes Paez Terán’s body as being torn up, shot at least a dozen times and that “many of the wound tracks within his body converge, coalesce and intersect, rendering the ability to accurately determine each and every individual wound track very limited, if even impossible.”
The report also says it is “impossible to determine" whether the activist was holding a firearm at the time they were shot.
The autopsy was conducted by Dr. Kris Sperry, who was the investigation bureau's longtime chief medical examiner until he abruptly resigned in 2015 after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Sperry “claimed hundreds of work hours at the GBI when he actually was working for clients of his forensic-science consulting firm.”
Atlanta City Council approved building the proposed $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the city after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
In addition to classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for authorities to rehearse raids.
Paez Terán moved from Florida last year to join activists in the woods who were protesting by camping out at the site and building platforms in surrounding trees.
Self-described “forest defenders” say that building the training center would involve cutting down so many trees it would damage the environment. They also oppose investing so much money in a project which they say will be used to practice “urban warfare.”
Since Paez Terán’s death, numerous protests have been held in Atlanta, some of which have turned violent, including when masked activists on Jan. 21 lit a police car on fire and shattered the windows of a downtown skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation and.
On March 5, a group threw flaming bottles and rocks at officers as others torched heavy machinery at the construction site where the training center is expected to be built. Twenty-three people are facing domestic terrorism charges in connection with that attack. Activists maintain that those who were arrested were not violent agitators “but peaceful concert-goers who were nowhere near the demonstration.”