Official autopsy report finds no evidence slain 'Cop City' protester shot first

The family of fatally shot protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, held a press conference in Decatur, Ga, on Feb. 6, 2023, asking for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to release more information on the death of the activist. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

An autopsy report released Wednesday, April 19, by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office states there was no gunpowder residue on the hands of the protester who was shot and killed during a multi-agency clearing operation near the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

Officials claimed 26-year-old Manuel Paez Teran first fired at a state trooper, and six officers fired back. The injured officer recovered after he was treated at a local hospital. His name was never publicly released.

Teran’s death has now been ruled a homicide, according to the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office. 

The autopsy report states Teran was covered with at least 57 gunshot wounds, including one lethal wound to the head, which was likely delivered toward the end of the shooting.

An independent autopsy commissioned by the family previously suggested Teran was sitting cross-legged on the ground with both hands in the air.

In a statement, Teran’s mother, Belkis Teran, said she’s devastated by the findings.

“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,” she said.

Teran’s father, Joel Paez, agreed.

“Manuel was camping on publicly-owned land that was not even on the future site of ‘Cop City,'” Paez said. “Law enforcement went in with weapons and shot pepper balls. 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.”

A diagram from the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office showing the location of the gunshot wounds of Manuel Paez Teran by six officers. (Courtesy of DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office)

The family’s attorneys called on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to release its full investigative report.

“There is no conceivable reason to continue to delay the release of its investigation,” attorney Jeff Filipovits said. “Only then can our clients and the community fully assess what happened in the moments leading up to Manuel’s death.”

The GBI announced last week that it’s handed its findings over to the Mountain Circuit District Attorney’s Office to determine next steps.

The special prosecutor was assigned by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council after DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said she was recusing her office from the investigation.

For months now, Teran’s family and protesters have called for an independent review of the case, questioning whether Teran was actually shot and killed in self-defense.

The GBI initially said preliminary evidence supported officers’ assertions that the trooper was shot with a bullet from a gun Teran legally purchased in 2020.

But, official incident reports later showed the officers’ accounts were filed a month after the deadly raid and that days before it took place, they received a plan from the GBI outlining a proposed method for clearing the site.

It followed more than a year of clashes between law enforcement and protesters, who say they are concerned about the impact of the $90-million, 85-acre police and firefighter training center on the environment and police violence in the area’s lower-income, majority-Black neighborhoods.

Dozens of protesters have since been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for allegedly trying to prevent construction. Most are from out of state.

The same day the autopsy report was released, the project’s new 40-plus member task force met for the first time behind closed doors to discuss plans for the facility and surrounding greenspace. It’s unclear whether future meetings will be open to the public due to “safety concerns.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens stood alongside community leaders on the steps of City Hall that afternoon as he said he’d push forward with the project.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens gathers with community leaders for a press conference on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to discuss the need for the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on April 19, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“For the last several months, there have been heightened conversations around the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center,” Dickens said. “Too often, those conversations have been led by folks who are not from here and who do not have Atlantans’ interests at heart, but they claim to be speaking for the community. What you see before you is an important part of the community, and we want their voices to be heard.”

Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young was one of them.

“We have always taken the leadership and tried to figure out peaceful answers that develop the entire community and that all of us can be proud of,” Young said. “That’s what we’re setting up this training center for.”