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Georgia Prosecutor Refuses to Charge State Troopers Who Killed Tortuguita

The DA will not press charges despite autopsy evidence that Terán had their hands raised and did not fire on police.

Sister-in-law, Fiona Paez, holds a photograph of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, better known as Tortuguita, during a press conference in Decatur, Georgia on February 6, 2023.

Human rights advocates on Friday condemned a Georgia prosecutor’s decision to not charge the state troopers who fatally shot forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán — better known as “Tortuguita” — during a militarized January raid at a Stop Cop City protest camp outside Atlanta.

“The system has, once again, declared its own innocence,” Stop Cop City activist Micah Herskind wrote on social media in response to the decision by the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office.

The Cop City Vote Coalition (CCVC) campaign said that “Tortuguita’s memory and the memories of all those stolen by police killings demand that we all continue the collective struggle for a future without state violence.”

Georgia State Patrol officers say they shot Terán after the 26-year-old Venezuelan activist opened fire on them, wounding an officer in the leg during the January 18 raid to evict protesters from the encampment protesting the $90 million, 85-acre Public Safety Training Center — widely known as “Cop City” — in the Weelaunee Forest just outside Atlanta city limits in DeKalb County.

According to a statement from Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Pro Tempore George Christian explaining the decision not to charge the troopers:

Terán… refused to comply with the lawful commands of the troopers to come out of a tent. The troopers used a ‘less lethal’ device known as a pepperball launcher in an effort to have Terán leave the tent. Terán responded by shooting four times his 9mm pistol through the tent, striking and seriously injuring a Georgia State Trooper. Six troopers returned fire resulting in the death of Teran.

“The use of lethal… force by Georgia State Patrol was objectively reasonable under the circumstances of this case,” the prosecutor concluded.

A DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office autopsy — which officials suppressed for months — revealed that Terán was shot 57 times and that there was no gunpowder residue on the victim’s hands, which advocates say debunks claims that the activist fired first. There is no police bodycam video of the incident.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that ballistics analysis proved a gun found at the scene of Terán’s killing — a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol GBI said the victim legally purchased in 2020 — fired the bullet that wounded the trooper.

CCVC said that “from the start, the state’s response to Tortuguita’s murder has been to lie and cover up the facts.”

“Today’s announcement ruling the killing as ‘reasonable’ is just the latest in a long line of changing stories and withholding evidence,” the campaign added.

Since Terán’s killing, more than 40 Stop Cop City campaigners have been criminally charged as domestic terrorists, while over 60 activists have also been indicted under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act — some for simply handing out fliers.

“These charges, like the previous repressive prosecutions by the state of Georgia, seek to intimidate protesters, legal observers, and bail funds alike, and send the chilling message that any dissent to Cop City will be punished with the full power and violence of the government,” organizers with CCVC toldThe Appeal last month.

Friday’s decision to not charge the troopers comes as CCVC attempts to get a referendum on the project on November’s ballot. Although they’ve collected more than 115,000 signatures — more than double the number needed to qualify for the ballot — campaigners accuse Atlanta officials of voter suppression due to what they say is an onerous signature verification process created solely to thwart the initiative.

City officials are refusing to even start the signature verification process, arguing that the campaign may have missed an August 21 submission deadline. Although the deadline had been extended until September by a federal judge, an appeals court subsequently blocked enforcement of the extension, creating a state of legal limbo for the initiative.

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