The Georgia Bureau of Investigation wrapped its investigation last week of the fatal shooting of an activist by Georgia State Patrol officers near the site of the planned Atlanta public safety training center site.
A special prosecutor from Habersham County is now reviewing the GBI’s findings to determine if charges should be filed in the case.
Activist Manuel Terán, 26, was killed Jan. 18 by Georgia State Patrol officers during a police operation to clear protesters from around the training center site in the South River Forest. Activists opposed to the training center call the site “Cop City.”
The GBI, the lead agency of the multi-jurisdictional clearing operation that included Atlanta and DeKalb police, said Terán fired first, wounding a Georgia State Patrol trooper. Other officers returned fire and killed Terán, the GBI said. The GBI and state troopers do not wear body cameras, so there is no footage of the shooting.
A DeKalb County medical examiner’s autopsy report said there was no gunpowder residue seen on Terán’s hands. A gunshot residue kit — a wiping of hands to look for gunpowder — was performed, the report said, but the results were not revealed. Gunshot residue is typically found on a person’s hands after they fired a weapon. The autopsy also said Terán had at least 57 gunshot wounds.
Despite the GBI’s role in the operation that resulted in the fatal shooting, the agency is charged with investigating shootings when officers are involved. “Stop Cop City” activists have long questioned the GBI’s involvement and demanded an independent investigation into Terán’s death.
The DeKalb County medical examiner’s office released the Terán’s autopsy report to ABC and Axios Atlanta on April 19, hours after Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens held a press conference on the steps of City Hall with former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and roughly 100 business and civic leaders to tout the public safety training center.
In an April 20 written statement, Dickens said the autopsy report “provides important details about the tragic incident on Jan. 18.”
“I know that people still have a lot of questions, and it is my hope that a thorough investigation will provide a clear understanding of what transpired, and provide Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Esteban Paez Terán’s family what they need as they seek answers and closure,” Dickens said.
State Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) said on social media the absence of gun residue raises doubts about the GBI’s allegation that Terán fired first. He said all law enforcement should be required to wear body cameras. An independent investigation also makes sense for this case “when there are serious questions about the veracity of the GSP account of events,” he said.
Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari said in a press release the new information “casts additional doubt around the legitimacy of the GBI’s ongoing investigation into the joint operation in South River Forest.” Bakhtiari called for the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into Terán’s death.
“With public confidence compromised and having had multiple agencies involved in the incident, I am once again calling for the United States Department of Justice to open an independent investigation into what actually transpired in the South River Forest,” Bakhtiari said.
“As the lead agency on the multi-jurisdictional sweep, the GBI is incapable of leading this investigation,” Bakhtiari said. “.The GBI needs to be investigated themselves, especially since the crime scene was never secured.”
The GBI handed over its case file on its investigation of the Terán shooting to Mountain Circuit District Attorney’s office in Habersham County on April 14, according to a spokesperson. The spokesperson said all questions about the investigation would need to go through the DA’s office. A request for comment from the DA’s office was not immediately returned.
A special prosecutor was brought in to review the GBI’s investigation after DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston recused her office from the case. Boston’s office works with the GBI in a multi-jurisdictional task force investigating and prosecuting Stop Cop City activists facing charges including domestic terrorism for allegedly being involved in violent protests. Using an outside prosecutor to review the GBI investigation ensures no potential conflict of interest, Boston said.
The DeKalb County medical examiner’s autopsy report said Terán died from multiple gunshot wounds. The manner of death is homicide, according to the report.
Terán had at least 57 gunshot wounds to their chest, arms, legs and hands, most of them non-fatal.
Terán also suffered a fatal gunshot to the head, but the autopsy report said this shot was likely not the first inflicted.
An independent autopsy was conducted at the request of Terán’s family after they said they received no information about the investigation from the GBI or the city of Atlanta. The independent autopsy released last month concluded Terán was shot while sitting down with their legs crossed with hands raised.
The DeKalb autopsy report, however, said it is difficult to determine what position Terán was in when officers opened fire.
“Since most shootings involving multiple gunshots are dynamic events attempts to place the decedent in any particular position at a specific point in time is fraught with potential inaccuracies,” the report said.
“There are too many variables with respect to movement of the decedent and the shooters to draw definitive conclusions concerning … Terán’s body position.”
This story has been updated.