Family of environmental activist killed while protesting 'Cop City' files lawsuit against Atlanta in search for answers
The family of an environmental activist killed while protesting a planned law enforcement training facility in Atlanta earlier this year has filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking the release of records to aid in their search for answers about what led to the fatal shooting.
“We’re here because Manuel Paez Terán’s family wants answers,” Jeff Filipovits, an attorney for the family, told reporters in a news conference Monday. “And we are not getting any answers.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the shooting, has said officers shot Terán after the activist shot and seriously wounded a state trooper on January 18, 2023, as law enforcement worked to clear protesters from the forested site of the proposed facility, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents who fear it will further militarize police and harm the environment.
Activists have disputed the GBI’s claim, and the family’s attorneys say an autopsy commissioned by the family and released Monday indicates the activist was seated and had their hands raised when they sustained at least some of the wounds.
But that autopsy – which notes Terán was shot about a dozen times by ammunition used in handguns and shotguns and could neither prove nor disprove the allegation the activist was armed – “is not enough for us to work backward from it to figure out what happened,” Filipovits said Monday.
The lawsuit aims to have a Georgia court order the city of Atlanta to turn over police department records the family’s attorneys previously requested, including any images and video or audio recordings related to authorities’ operation on January 18. But those requests have been stymied by what the attorneys and their lawsuit allege is a “coordinated effort” by the state to “prevent public records from being released to Manuel’s family and the public at large.”
“My heart is destroyed,” Belkis Terán, the mother of the activist, said at Monday’s news conference, adding she is trying to continue her child’s legacy but still lacks the answers she needs. “I want answers for my child’s homicide. I’m asking for answers to my child’s homicide.”
A spokesperson for the city of Atlanta declined to comment Monday, citing the pending litigation. Reached for comment Monday, the GBI referred CNN to earlier statements. In a news release last week, the agency said its actions were aimed at preventing the “inappropriate release of evidence” to “ensure the facts of the incident are not tainted.” The GBI “continues to work diligently to protect the integrity of the investigation and will turn our findings over to an appointed prosecutor for review and action.” The investigation so far, it added, “still supports our initial assessment.”
The city initially responded to a January request for information from attorneys by saying the Atlanta Police Department had identified relevant records that would be released on a “rolling basis,” according to Wingo Smith, another attorney representing the family, and the lawsuit. On February 8, the family’s attorneys had received 14 videos from body-worn cameras that were also released to reporters, the lawsuit says.
On February 13, however, the director of the GBI’s Legal Division sent a letter to the Atlanta police chief asking the department to “withhold those records” related to the GBI’s investigation, the lawsuit says. According to the letter, provided as an exhibit in the family’s lawsuit, the GBI explained the records were evidence in an ongoing investigation, and thus exempt from public disclosure.
The next day, the state Department of Law sent a letter to the city, according to the lawsuit, and on February 15, Atlanta police sent a revised response to the attorneys, saying it would “not be releasing further footage at this time.”
The planned police facility – slated to include among other things, a shooting range, a burn building and a mock city – has received fierce pushback from several groups. Among them are residents who feel there was little public input, conservationists who worry it will carve out a chunk of much-needed forest land and activists who say it will militarize police forces and contribute to further instances of police brutality. Those backing the facility say it’s needed to help boost police morale and recruitment efforts.
Tensions between law enforcement and protesters have continued to rise since Terán’s death, reaching a fever pitch earlier this month when nearly two dozen demonstrators were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism in connection to violent clashes at the site. Authorities said officers and construction equipment were assailed with Molotov cocktails, commercial-grade fireworks, bricks and large rocks.
Eli Bennett, a defense attorney for some of those charged, claimed his clients had been wrongfully arrested “more than a mile” from those clashes and about “an hour or two” after footage showed demonstrators lobbing fireworks and Molotov cocktails at police.
“They all deny it,” he added, speaking about his clients. “Police moved in with an overwhelming display of force,” Bennett told CNN about the arrests.
The attorneys on Monday also publicly released the autopsy commissioned by the family and performed by a forensic pathologist, who detailed the numerous gunshot wounds Terán suffered to their feet, legs, abdomen, arms, hands and head.
Most of the wounds indicate they were caused by handguns, the autopsy notes, though others appear consistent with shotgun ammunition. There were no entrance wounds on Terán’s back, the pathologist wrote, indicating the activist “was facing the multiple individuals who were firing their weapons at him during the entire interval in which the shooting occurred.”
The wounds, the pathologist writes, “indicate that the decedent was most probably in a seated position, cross-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg.”
“At some point during the course of being shot, the decedent was able to raise (their) hands and arms up in front of (their) body, with (their) palms facing towards (their) upper body,” it says.
“It is impossible to determine if the decedent had been holding a firearm, or not holding a firearm, either before (they were) shot or while (they were) being shot the multiple times.”
The official autopsy, performed by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office, has not been released.