ATLANTA (CN) — Civil rights attorneys and the family of Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, who was shot and killed by task force officers in Atlanta last month while demonstrating against a police training facility, are demanding more transparency from the ongoing investigation into his death.
They announced during a press conference Monday morning that they conducted a private autopsy, which revealed Terán was shot by several different officers at least 13 times on Jan. 18.
The 26-year-old was a Venezuelan native and honors student at Florida State University, who, along with multiple others, 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 protesters as "Cop City" for its proposed inclusion of a mock city for first responders to train in.
According to the family, Terán often participated in community work and in environmental activism.
"All he wanted was to protect a forest," his mother Belkis Terán said.
Daniel Paez, Terán's brother and a Navy veteran, called on police officers to do more.
"Forcefully stop each other from killing civilians," Paez said. "Stop just following orders."
According to the family, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations has yet to explain to them what exactly happened that day. Very little information about the fatal incident has been released so far from the agency.
Terán is accused of firing at troopers “without warning,” wounding one, as they attempted to remove the protesters from the area in a "clearing operation." He reportedly died after other officers in a multi-agency task force returned fire.
Two days after the incident, the GBI said it received a firearms transaction record showing that in September 2020, Terán legally purchased the firearm used in the shooting of the Georgia State Patrol trooper.
The agency also revealed that the officers who were near the incident at the time of shooting were not wearing body cameras, but that there is body cam footage of the "aftermath."
Civil rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits, representing Terán's family, said they have requested a meeting with GBI Director Mike Register to see more evidence.
"The GBI has selectively released information about Manny's death," Filipovits said. "They claim Manny failed to follow orders. What orders? The GBI has not talked about the fact that Manny faced a firing squad, when those shots were fired, or who fired them."
While the GBI has stated there is no body cam footage of the shooting, the agency has yet to say if there is audio or video from other sources, such as aerial drones or helicopters that were in use over the area at the time. According to the family's attorneys, there were also reportedly surveillance cameras installed in the area.
"We have heard the phrase 'outside agitators' used to describe protesters, a phrase that has been used since the civil rights movement and a phrase our elected leaders have used. And now we have a new phrase - 'domestic terrorists,'" Filipovits said. "Before and after Manuel's death, law enforcement arrested peaceful protesters and charged them with domestic terrorism. What is a domestic terrorist according to our leadership?"
Filipovits read some of the affidavits from arrest warrants for several other protesters who were charged under Georgia's controversial domestic terrorism law for occupying the forested area.
One of them was "occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask in camouflage clothing," according to the affidavits, while another was "sleeping in a hammock with another defendant" and was "a known member of a prison abolitionist movement."
"We used to call that a sit-in protest, now it's terrorism," Filipovits said.
The attorney said protesters who were present during the shooting are unable to speak with them as witnesses because of the severe charges against them.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston recused herself from the investigation last month and requested that a special prosecutor be assigned to handle the findings brought by the GBI and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.
Also on Monday morning, SWAT teams from the Atlanta and DeKalb County police departments, as well as Georgia State Patrol troopers and representatives from other agencies, were seen at the police training facility site, along with construction crews and bulldozers beginning to clear the woods. No protesters were reported to be seen in the area.
Officials announced Tuesday, less than two weeks after Terán's death, that initial land disturbance permits had been approved for the $90 million facility.
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