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Autopsy reveals anti-'Cop City' activist's hands were raised when shot and killed

Updated March 11, 2023 at 3:59 PM ET

A second autopsy of an environmental activist who was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol on Jan. 18 shows their hands were raised when they were killed, lawyers for their family say. The full autopsy report will be released at a press conference Monday.

The 26-year-old protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was killed in an Atlanta-area forest while police cleared an encampment of activists who oppose the construction of Atlanta's "Cop City" — or Public Training Safety Facility. Terán went by Tortuguita.

"Both Manuel's left and right hands show exit wounds in both palms. The autopsy further reveals that Manuel was most probably in a seated position, cross-legged when killed," lawyers said in a press release.

Last month, Tortuguita's family said they were shot at least a dozen times.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says officers killed Tortuguita in self-defense after they shot a state trooper, but the City of Atlanta released videos in which an officer suggests the trooper may have been injured by friendly fire.

The Atlanta Police Department said that the "officers had no immediate knowledge of the events at the shooting site" before making their comments, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that officer's speculation is not evidence.

Tortuguita's family has sued for the release of more information under the Georgia Open Records Act, the press release says.

"Imagine the police killed your child. And now then imagine they won't tell you anything. That is what we are going through," Belkis Terán, Tortuguita's mother, said in a statement.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation hasn't released the government's autopsy report or met with Tortuguita's family, and it blocked the City of Atlanta from releasing more video evidence. It has said there's no body camera or dashcam footage of the shooting, and that ballistics evidence shows the bullet that injured the trooper came from a gun belonging to Tortuguita.

"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 Georgia Bureau of Investigation said.

The family's lawyers dispute this rationale. Attorney Brian Spears said in a statement that the agency "has had more than enough time to interview all witnesses. Once those interviews are complete, there is no reason to withhold this evidence."

Those who knew Tortuguita say the details offered by authorities don't match the person they knew. In interviews, while they were still alive, Tortuguita expressed a commitment to nonviolence.

The training facility is set to cost $90 million and take up 85 acres of land in the South River Forest, which is an important area of green space that the City of Atlanta has described as one of its four "lungs." Tortuguita was one of the forest defenders camping out on the site to prevent its development.

At a press conference at a Stop Cop City children's march and rally on Saturday, Tortuguita's mother shared memories of Tortuguita cleaning beaches in Panama, where their family is from, and of them feeding and sheltering people everywhere they lived.

"I'm suffering," Belkis Terán said. "But this suffering is giving to me power — power to fight, power to stand."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.