Manuel "Tortuguita" Esteban Paez Terán was shot and killed by police outside Atlanta, Georgia on January 18, 2023.

Manuel "Tortuguita" Esteban Paez Terán was shot and killed by police outside Atlanta, Georgia on January 18, 2023.

(Photo: Unicorn Riot)

'Obliterates the Police Narrative': Autopsy Shows Forest Defender Killed by Cops Never Fired Weapon

"Evidence Terán was executed is overwhelming," said a human rights lawyer after DeKalb County's autopsy report found no gunpowder residue on the hands of the activist whom police shot 57 times in purported self-defense.

Progressives expressed disgust Wednesday after DeKalb County released an autopsy showing that cops shot Atlanta forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán 57 times and that there was no gunpowder residue on the victim's hands—debunking the government's claim Terán fired first.

The autopsy, which officials suppressed for three months, finally saw the light of day thanks to a public records request. Its results have prompted accusations of an attempted cover-up by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).

"The GBI—the entity 'investigating'—clearly tried to craft a cover-up of an apparent police murder and failed."

Terán, commonly known as "Tortuguita," was killed during a January 18 raid on an encampment in the Weelaunee Forest. They were part of a collective that occupied the suburban Atlanta forest in a bid to prevent the construction of a $90 million, 85-acre police and fire training facility popularly known as Cop City.

The GBI has alleged that Terán shot and injured a state trooper before multiple officers from a joint task force returned lethal fire. But the autopsy found no gunpowder residue on Terán's hands, in addition to revealing that cops riddled the 26-year-old activist's hands, torso, legs, and head with nearly five dozen bullets.

"Terán did not fire a gun which obliterates the police narrative," human rights lawyer Steven Donziger tweeted. "Evidence Terán was executed is overwhelming."

"Georgia police buried the official autopsy of Terán for months until it was forced into the open today by a public records request," Donziger added. "The GBI—the entity 'investigating'—clearly tried to craft a cover-up of an apparent police murder and failed."

"Now that the cover-up is unraveling, will the public demand accountability?" the Atlanta Solidarity Fund asked on social media. "Will [Georgia State Police] get away with murder?"

In a statement, Tortuguita's mother, Belkis Terán, said, "We are devastated to learn that our child, our sweet Manny, was mercilessly gunned down by police and suffered 57 bullet wounds all over their body."

While the official autopsy report provides additional information, Tortuguita's loved ones continue to demand answers from the GBI, whose probe of the incident is ongoing.

"We cannot even begin to determine what happened on the morning of January 18 until the GBI releases its investigation," said family attorney Brian Spears.

His partner, attorney Jeff Filipovits, concurred: "There is no conceivable reason to continue to delay the release of its investigation. Only then can our clients and the community fully assess what happened in the moments leading up to Manuel's death."

Family members continue to question the GBI's ability to fairly probe the events of January 18 given that the bureau was involved in planning and executing the forest clearance operation that led to Tortuguita's death.

"Manuel was camping on publicly owned land that was not even on the future site of Cop City. Law enforcement went in with weapons and shot pepper balls," said Tortuguita's father, Joel Paez. "They created a violent situation and were ready to kill anyone who resisted. Now they will not even meet with us to explain what happened."

Tortuguita's family continues to urge the GBI to publish the results of its inquiry now, including forensic test findings, all audio and video recordings of the shooting, and interviews with officers involved.

"We are devastated to learn that our child, our sweet Manny, was mercilessly gunned down by police and suffered 57 bullet wounds all over their body."

Following the release of Tortuguita's autopsy, Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights organizer Martin Luther King, Jr. and a longtime Atlanta resident, posed a question about the future of Cop City: "How could this info regarding the police shooting of a protester of the Public Safety Training Center NOT raise more concerns about the center's placement and purpose?"

The Atlanta City Council gave the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private organization, permission to build Cop City in 2021, four years after the Atlanta City Planning Department recommended transforming the Weelaunee Forest—deemed one of four "city lungs"—into a massive urban park.

Several forest defenders were detained and charged with felonies—under a 2017 Georgia law that expanded the definition of "domestic terrorism" to include certain property crimes—during mid-December raids on their encampment.

More forest defenders were arrested on the same charges on January 18, the day police fatally shot Tortuguita—the first or possibly second time that police have killed an environmental activist in modern U.S. history, according to experts.

Additional people are facing prosecution as a result of Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's crackdown on demonstrations held since Tortuguita's killing.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced what they called a "compromise" for Cop City in the wake of Tortuguita's killing, but opposition to the project remains strong among local residents.

"Cop City is something that no one in the community asked for, and survey after survey shows that the majority of Atlanta residents are opposed," Kamau Franklin from Community Movement Builders, one of the organizations fighting against Cop City, said in February. "The mayor continues to run roughshod over the desires of the community."

Days after cops killed Tortuguita, a coalition of more than 1,300 progressive advocacy groups published a letter demanding an independent investigation as well as the resignation of Dickens, a Democrat who they said parroted "the rhetoric of extreme right-wing Gov. Brian Kemp" when he condemned protesters rather than police officers following the shooting.

The groups pointed out that Dickens and the Atlanta City Council have the authority to terminate the land lease for Cop City and implored local policymakers to do so immediately.

The effort to halt the construction of Cop City suffered a major setback last week, however, when "the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously rejected an appeal of the project's land development permit," Axios reported.

Ikiya Collective, a signatory of the coalition's letter, warned earlier this year that the training set to take place at Cop City "will impact organizing across the country" as police are taught how to repress popular uprisings.

"This is a national issue," said the collective. "Climate justice and police brutality are interconnected, which is why we are joining the Stop Cop City calls to action with the frontline communities in Atlanta."

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