No charges to be filed in the police killing of Manuel Paez Terán

By: Matt Scott

Mountain District Attorney (DA) George R. Christian released a 31-page report on Friday and determined that no charges will be filed against the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) SWAT officers responsible for the January killing of environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán near the site of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, more commonly known as Cop City.

Six GSP SWAT officers shot and killed Terán on Jan. 18 while participating in a multi-agency raid on encampments set up by activists attempting to stop the construction of Cop City. In a press conference hours after the shooting, then-Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) head Mike Register — who left the GBI over the summer — said that Terán had fired on officers without warning, striking one, prompting the GSP officers to return fire and kill Terán. Activists immediately rejected the GBI narrative and called for an independent investigation, which did not happen. Footage from a body camera worn by an Atlanta Police Department officer nearby to the shooting also cast doubt on the GBI narrative as the officer wearing the body camera can be heard saying “you fucked your own officer up.”

According to a report by the DeKalb Medical examiner, Terán was shot dozens of times, receiving 57 gunshot wounds, including multiple wounds from the same bullets. An independent medical examiners report stated that Terán was likely killed in a cross-legged position with hands raised, palms facing inward. Neither the DeKalb nor independent medical examiners found evidence of gun-shot residue (GSR) on Terán’s hands. A GSR test kit report released by the GBI said analysts found GSR particles but acknowledged, “it is possible for victims of gunshot wounds, both self-inflicted and non-self-inflicted, to have GSR present on their hands.”

Manuel Paez Terán pictured in the South River Forest

The GBI announced an investigation into the fatal shooting on Jan. 18, hours after the death of Teràn. In April, once the GBI’s initial investigation was complete, those findings were passed on to Christian to determine whether to bring charges against the officers. Typically, the decision to bring charges rests with the DA for the area in which the shooting took place, but DeKalb County DA Sherry Boston recused herself from the case on the grounds of her office’s participation in the raid that led to the killing of Terán. The GBI also participated in the same raid, but the office did not recuse itself from the investigation.

Christian concurred with the GBI narrative of the shooting. 

“The use of lethal (deadly) force by the Georgia State Patrol was objectively reasonable under the circumstances of this case,” wrote Christian in a press release about his decision. “No criminal charges will be brought against the Georgia State Patrol Troopers involved in the shooting of Manual Paez Teran.” Eds note: the spelling “Manual” instead of “Manuel” in the press release and report is the same as the quote reads.

Christian’s report on the investigation offers very little in the way of answers or clarity; instead, it relies heavily on the accounts of the GSP SWAT members themselves and the DeKalb medical examiner’s report that were all released publicly in March.

A log of the gunshot wounds inflicted on Manuel Paez Terán created by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner

The report also revealed the existence of additional body camera footage from three Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Game Wardens who were assisting in the January raid and operating close by to the GSP SWAT team that killed Terán. According to the DA’s report, like the APD body camera footage released in February, the DNR footage does not directly show the shooting, but “the audio portion of several individual body cameras recorded the sequence.” 

At least two of the DNR officers wearing body cameras are described as being at the site where Terán was killed prior to the shooting. Video from those body cameras would provide perhaps the best understanding of the scene, but the public is not likely to have access to them for years to come.

A still from body camera footage.
The officer wearing the body camera can be heard saying, “man, you fucked your own officer up”

Christian wrote in a press release, “because there is a pending criminal investigation and prosecution by the State of Georgia, Attorney General’s Office, including and related to the subject matter of this report…request made for records in this case will be denied, until such time as the above investigation and prosecution is not pending.”

Christian also stated that the 31-page report will be the only information provided about the Jan. 18 shooting “due to the above pending matters.”

The pending criminal investigation likely refers to the RICO case against the 61 protestors who were indicted in September, 42 of whom also have pending domestic terrorism cases being prosecuted by the Georgia Attorney General’s office. Those cases are not expected to be resolved for several years. In the last major finished RICO case in Georgia – one in which 12 Atlanta Public School teachers were convicted in a test cheating scandal – the trial was not resolved for nearly four years. There are two other RICO cases being prosecuted in Fulton County currently, one against Donald Trump and other individuals accused of attempting to overturn the 2021 election, and a second against individuals alleged to be part of the Young Slime Life gang.

Until the racketeering and domestic terrorism cases against protestors are resolved, the public is left with only the scarce information that has already been released and the 31-page DA’s report. On social media, Cop City opponents voiced disappointment, but a lack of surprise with the report’s findings.

One of the main accounts used by Cop City opponents, the Defend the Atlanta Forest account on the X platform, responded to the report, saying, “justice doesn’t come from the courts; it comes from our dedication to the fight for liberation through hardships. We honor our dead by refusing to give up.”

The @CopCityVote X feed after the release of the DA’s report

Friday afternoon, the coalition responsible for a potential referendum vote to Stop Cop City also took to X and called into question the veracity of the DA’s report. 

“From the start,” the coalition wrote, “the state’s response to Tortuguita’s murder has been to lie and cover up the facts. Today’s announcement is just the latest in a long line of changing stories and withholding evidence.”

As of the time of publication, attorneys for Terán’s family have not released a statement regarding the report.

Local, independent journalism takes time and resources. If you have the capacity, please consider becoming a subscriber or making a one-time contribution to keep ACPC running. Donate to ACPC here.