Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

March 13, 2023

Tortuguita, with hands up, was shot 14 times with pistol and shotgun blasts

Independent Autopsy Reveals Tortuguita Killed While Seated with Hands Raised -- Autopsy reveals the young forest defender was shot 14 times, including in the face, with a pistol, shotgun slug and shotgun pellets by Georgia State Police

By Atlanta Community Press Collective
Censored News

The family of slain activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán released the findings of the independent autopsy today that indicates Tortuguita was killed by a Georgia State Patrol (GSP) SWAT team while seated in a “cross-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg,” and had their hands up, palms facing toward their upper body at the time of their death.

The full findings, conducted by a forensic pathologist, Kris Sperry, M.D., on Jan. 31 at the Connor-Westbury Funeral home in Griffin, Georgia, reveal Tortuguita was shot 14 times, with wounds stemming from a mixture of predominately handgun caliber bullets as well as both a shotgun slug and shotgun pellets with trajectories that indicate Tortuguita was facing their killers. Sperry’s report states, “it is impossible to tell if [Tortuguita] had been holding a firearm, or not holding a firearm, either before [they were] shot or while [they were] being shot the multiple times.” One observation the report does make is that Tortuguita raised their “hands and arms up and in front of [their] body” during the course of the shooting.

Sperry also asserts that, “none of the identified firearm wounds exhibited any evidence of close range firing (the presence of gunpowder soot and/or stippling).” This is particularly notable, as there were gunshot wounds in both of Tortuguita’s hands which would likely show evidence of gunpowder residue had they fired their gun at the GSP trooper. The report notes that gunpowder residue “may have been washed from the body during the first autopsy, but this is very unlikely.”

These findings stand contrary to early reports released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the agency heading the investigation into the the killing. According to the GBI, Tortuguita fired on a GSP trooper first and was killed by return fire. Two days after the raid the GBI released an image of the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield they allege Tortuguita shot a trooper with, and stated there is a ballistics match between the bullet recovered from the injured trooper and Tortuguita’s gun.

Activists believe that friendly fire caused the trooper’s injuries. One of the four body camera videos released by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) Feb. 6 supports this assessment. In it, an APD officer can be heard remarking, “you fucked your own guy up,” a few minutes after the shooting. At the time APD released an initial 14 videos to the family’s lawyers and four videos to the general public. The department separately stated to both the family’s lawyers and the general public that more footage would be released on a rolling basis. More than a month later, no additional videos are available.

The GBI’s lead role in the investigation is an issue for activists as well. They cite the participation of GBI agents in the initial raid that led to the death of Tortuguita as reason the agency should recuse itself and have an independent investigator take over the case.

The DeKalb County District Attorney, Sherry Boston recused her office from the prosecution of the case a week after the raid, citing the participation of her office in the raid as reason for the recusal.

The Paez Terán family is represented by Spears and Filipovitz, a civil rights law firm in DeKalb County, which filed a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) Lawsuit against the City of Atlanta late last week over executive interference by the GBI and Georgia Attorney General’s (AG) office.

On Feb. 13, the GBI emailed APD requesting the department not release any additional body camera footage. A day later, the Georgia Attorney General’s office emailed the City of Atlanta Department of Law providing a legal basis for APD to withhold additional videos from the family. A Feb. 15 email from APD to the lawyers for the Paez Terán family stated that the Department would release no additional footage, citing the GBI and AG advisory emails as the reason why the department’s position changed.

The GORA lawsuit requests the Superior Court of Fulton County order the City of Atlanta to turn over the additional body camera footage and pay for the family’s legal fees in the case.

Vice reports:

"Lawyers for the family of 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as Tortuguita, released the results of that autopsy in a press conference Monday. The report also showed they were shot at least 14 times, including in the face."

Tortuguita "was shot so many times and by different firearms that the tracks running through the body converge and intersect," said Brian Spears, one of the lawyers representing Tortuguita’s family. "Manuel was looking death in the face, hands raised, when killed."

"Tortuguita was a prominent voice in the “forest defenders” or “Stop Cop City” movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Environmental and anti-police activists have been camping out in treehouses as part of their protest against a planned $90 million police training center on 400 acres of South River Forest (also called the Weelaunee Forest) in the Atlanta area."

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