The state police killing in January of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Teran — a flashpoint of the “Cop City” protests — was “objectively reasonable” due to its shootout circumstance, and no criminal charges will be brought against the troopers, a prosecutor has ruled.
“The use of lethal (deadly) force by the Georgia State Patrol was objectively reasonable under the circumstances of this case,” said a press release from George R. Christian, the district attorney pro tempore for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit, who reviewed the Jan. 18 killing and issued a final report Oct. 6. “No criminal charges will be brought against the Georgia State Patrols Troopers involved in the shooting of Manual [sic] Paez Teran.”
The report was met with outrage from Teran’s family and led one Atlanta City Council member to renew calls for an independent investigation from the likes of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The report is a rubber stamp of the GBI’s version of events without any critical
analysis,” said Brian Spears, an attorney for the Teran family, in a press release. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the investigation, whose results were delivered to Christian for his review and decision.
Christian found from police reports and other evidence that Teran shot at six state troopers — seriously injuring one — while refusing to exit a tent near the site of Atlanta’s public safety training center in DeKalb County. Teran was one of many protesters camping in the surrounding woods as a civil disobedience tactic to blockade the project as well as the development of adjacent public parkland where the shooting apparently happened.
A core issue is that the state troopers involved in the killing did not wear body cameras. However, Christian’s report says other officers in the general area — including Atlanta Police Department officers and state game wardens — did have body cameras whose audio matched the sequence of shots claimed by the troopers.
The report identifies the troopers involved — all members of a SWAT team — as Mark Lamb, Jonathan Salcedo, Bryland Myers, Ronaldo Kegel, Royce Zah and Jerry Parrish. Parrish is the trooper who was wounded by Teran, according to the report.
The report says that troopers discovered Teran inside a tent and ordered the protester to come out on the basis of a criminal trespass violation. Teran refused, so the troopers fired pepper balls — plastic balls containing a chemical irritant — at the tent. Teran then opened fire with a handgun and wounded Parrish, according to the report, and troopers returned fire, killing the protester. Some of the troopers reported a bang and cloud of smoke that they believed indicated Teran had set off an improvised explosive device.
The report restates some previously released information, including that Teran had purchased the gun that shot the trooper.
Christian concluded the police actions were “objectively reasonable” because Teran was committing a crime, resisting arrest and fired first. There was no sign of criminal intent from the troopers, Christian found.
In an unusual move, Christian’s press release about the report says that all requests for documents related to the investigation under the Georgia Open Records Act would be denied due to a “pending criminal investigation and prosecution” by the Georgia Attorney General’s office. That case is not identified but may refer to controversial racketeering charges against 61 people related to the “Stop Cop City” and “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movements.
The report and press release refer to Teran with male pronouns, though the protester identified as nonbinary and used “they/them” pronouns, according to fellow protesters.
Teran’s family blasted the report and the blanket declaration that all Open Records requests will be denied. The family previously commissioned an independent autopsy that questioned whether Teran handled a gun, among other issues.
“This pervasive abuse of open records law only adds to the pain and trauma Manuel’s family is going through,” said Wingo Smith, another attorney for the family, in their press release.
“We have waited eight months for the truth,” added Belkis Teran, the protester’s mother. “We are in pain. We want to hear the interviews. We want our experts to review the lab tests. We want our questions answered. This report does not answer our questions. How long must we wait?”
District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari discussed the report on Oct. 6 on WABE’s “Closer Look with Rose Scott.” Bakhtiari called for an independent investigation by the DOJ or another entity and alluded to such other questions as the armed raid occurring at a public park partly during its opening hours, which complicates the underlying trespass issue.
Scott asked if Bahktiari believes Teran fired on the troopers as described in the report, to which the councilmember replied after a pause, “To be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t think we will know the actual truth” due to the lack of body cam footage and other issues. Noting that the report is based on the police version of events, Bakhtiari said that “there is nothing about their findings that are unbiased.”
Bakhtiari also spoke about the context of larger transparency issues with the training center plan as driving the protest tensions and advocated for the “Vote to Stop Cop City” concept of making it a ballot question. With that effort currently stalled in a court dispute, Bakhtiari earlier this month considered a council resolution creating the referendum instead, but City attorneys have said it is unlawful. Bakhtiari said that transparency “starts with finding a way to put this on the ballot…”
The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition criticized the report in social media posts and referred to the incident as among the police killings that inspired the movement.
“From the start, the state’s response to Tortuguita’s murder has been to lie and cover up the facts,” the statement said in part. “Today’s announcement is just the latest in a long line of changing stories and withholding evidence… In their name, we fight to Stop Cop City and build a better world.”
Update: This story has been updated with reactions from Teran’s family, Councilmember Bakhtiari and the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition.