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Family of ‘Cop City’ protester killed by Atlanta police demands answers

A second private autopsy ordered by the family suggests the protester was killed with both hands raised in a seated position.

ATLANTA (CN) — Relatives of Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, who was shot and killed by task office officers in January while demonstrating against a police training facility in Atlanta, said Monday they are still fighting for answers about what happened that day.

While the Georgia Bureau of Investigations has not yet disclosed to the family the details of Terán's death, they have sought to uncover them on their own. Their attorneys announced during a press conference that a second private autopsy was conducted at their request, revealing exit wounds in both of Terán’s palms and shots in his legs, suggesting that he was likely in a seated, cross-legged position with his hands raised when he was killed. 

The autopsy also reportedly showed a gunshot wound to the head through Terán’s right eye, a lethal shot that would've been instantly fatal if fired before the several others.

The second autopsy was conducted by Dr. Kris Sperry, a forensic pathologist and former GBI chief medical examiner, after a prior one conducted on Jan. 31 revealed Terán was shot at least 13 times by multiple firearms.

“I never thought Manuel could die in a meditation position,” his mother, Belkis Terán, said at the press conference. “I gave my children love and compassion as tools to make the world a better place, but now there are no answers.” 

The 26-year-old Venezuelan native and honors student at Florida State University was among multiple protesters who set up tents and tree-sits throughout the South River Forest area of Dekalb County to protest the construction of what is expected to be the nation's largest police training facility.

Referred to by critics as "Cop City" for its proposed inclusion of a mock city for first responders to train in, the project has drawn opposition from local community members to police reform and environmental advocates across the world. But the city and the Atlanta Police Foundation, which is working with an array of corporate donors to fund the $90 million facility, say it is necessary to boost recruitment and properly train first responders.

On Jan. 18, a joint task force comprised of local and state officers and GBI agents entered the site to clear the area, arresting the occupying protesters on charges of trespassing and domestic terrorism. According to the GBI,  Terán shot a Georgia State Patrol trooper before other officers returned fire. They claim they recovered a handgun that was legally purchased in his name and matched the projectile recovered from the officer’s wound.

But Decatur-based civil rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits said Monday the GBI has not been fully transparent with Terán’s family or the public about their investigation and has selectively released information to support its own narrative.

“This is intimidation by the state against dissent,” Filipovits said.

“The lack of willingness to even detail a factual basis for destroying many people’s lives who are denied bond and are sitting in Dekalb County jail right now is the quintessential lack of transparency,” he added. 

Daniel Paez, Terán's brother, said that false portrayals of Terán as a violent criminal have led his family to receive hateful letters saying things like “I'm glad your son got killed” and “you scumbags go back to the country you came from.”

While the GBI has said it has no footage of the incident because its officers are not required to wear body cameras, the Atlanta Police Department publicly released its own footage of the shooting’s aftermath last month at the attorneys’ request.  

In a nearly 40-minute, time-stamped body camera video, Atlanta police officers are seen removing tents before four shots are heard at 9:01 a.m. There is a brief pause before what sounds like multiple officers firing dozens of rounds in return.

As the group takes cover, one officer asks, “Is this target practice?”, potentially referring to the nearby existing Atlanta police firing range.

An unnamed Atlanta police officer wearing the camera can be heard uttering, “Man, you fucked your own officer up.” 

The officer was not directly present at the scene of the shooting, but activists who have questioned the official narrative of Terán's death since the beginning have touted the footage as a possibility that it was not Teran who shot the trooper, but another officer. 

In response to the release of the footage, the GBI stated, “Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement.”

During Monday’s press conference, attorney Wingo Smith said that “when inconvenient information came to light,” the director of GBI’s legal division wrote a letter to the Atlanta Police Department asking it to withhold releasing any further requested records related to the Terán investigation. Smith said that he filed a lawsuit Friday against the city on behalf of Terán’s father, Joel Paez, for not complying with Georgia’s Open Records Act. 

The GBI defended its decisions in a statement.

“The actions of the GBI to prevent inappropriate release of evidence are solely intended to preserve the integrity of the investigation and to ensure the facts of the incident are not tainted.  The GBI investigation still supports our initial assessment,” the agency said.

It added, "All the facts, to include any information brought forward by the family’s attorney, will be assessed along with all other investigative information by the special prosecutor. The GBI cannot and will not attempt to sway public opinion in this case but will continue to be led by the facts and truth. We understand the extreme emotion that this has caused Terán’s family and will continue to investigate as comprehensively as possible.”

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