‘Cop City’ activist’s official autopsy reveals more than 50 bullet wounds | Georgia

Official autopsy results for Manuel Paez Terán, an environmental activist police shot and killed three months ago during a raid in a Georgia public park near the planned site of a police and fire department training center, do little to advance the state’s version of events, including the notion that the activist shot first, wounding an officer.

Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita”, was one of the “forest defenders” camped throughout the public park less than a mile away from the planned center, known as “Cop City”, when dozens of officers entered the South River Forest south-east of Atlanta, Georgia, on 18 January.

The incident was the first time in US history that police have shot and killed an environmental activist while protesting, galvanizing a surging movement to protect the forest and oppose the training center and transforming Paez Terán into an international figure.

The state’s narrative since then has been that Paez Terán fired first. The Georgia bureau of investigation (GBI), charged with investigating the killing, has only publicly released evidence to date supporting the idea, including a photo of the firearm allegedly used by the activist, and a purchase record of the gun. The officers who shot Paez Terán were from the Georgia state patrol, who generally do not wear body cameras; the state has said there is no footage of the shooting.

DeKalb county’s autopsy, released to the media through open records requests on Wednesday, offers no support for the notion that Paez Terán fired a weapon, stating that “gunpowder residue is not seen on the hands” or clothes of Paez Terán. Residue on the hands might indicate that a person fired a gun, but neither this analysis nor a test known as the GSR kit is foolproof, according to experts.

Patrick Bailey, director of the DeKalb county medical examiner’s office, told the Guardian that the county forwarded evidence to the GBI for them to perform the GSR kit, or gunshot residue test.

Nonetheless, the autopsy report does little to clarify what actually happened that day, except for noting in 19 pages of clinical detail the 57 gunshot wounds that Paez Terán received, employing every letter of the alphabet more than once to label the injuries.

“I tried to read the whole thing – in the end it was a little too much,” said Daniel Paez, Manuel’s older brother, reached at his home in Texas. “The very fact that they’re talking about Manny, and how they died – I didn’t even want to share it with our mother, since the pain of losing Manny continues to haunt us; it doesn’t seem to get better.”

“It’s just brutal,” said Wingo Smith, one of the team of attorneys representing the Paez Terán family. “It’s just gruesome, the effect of the shots on their body, the actual devastation.” Smith and his colleagues received the autopsy results and met with staff at the DeKalb medical examiner’s office last week, and shared the report with the Paez Terán family.

The attorney said that Dr Gerald T Gowitt, whose signature is on the county autopsy report, told him and his colleagues that the absence of gunpowder residue was generally “not conclusive of whether or not somebody shot a firearm” – and that the officers who shot Paez Terán were probably more than a few feet away. The county did not have GSR kit results from the GBI available at the meeting, Smith said. Bailey told the Guardian on Thursday he had not seen the kit results, and the GBI did not respond to queries before publication.

The county’s results had been eagerly awaited, as the high-profile case saw the Paez Terán family releasing results of their own autopsy in March, before DeKalb county had released its own report.

In a 16 March story revealing that the county had not released its report even as the family’s attorneys had already completed a second autopsy, Bailey told the Guardian that an “internal review” needed to be completed before the report could be released. The document released on Wednesday was signed by Dr Gowitt on 14 March; Bailey said on Thursday that it took five weeks for his office’s review, together with meetings with the GBI and with the family’s attorneys.

The Paez Terán family, through its attorneys, had been trying to meet with the GBI, the medical examiner, the police and other officials for months without results when results were shared with them last week. They sued the city of Atlanta to enforce compliance with the state’s Open Records Act in March, after the city’s police department publicly released a handful of body-cam videos from officers who were near the shooting, promised to release more, and then didn’t. Dozens of shots are heard in the videos released, along with police officers speaking several times about the notion that an officer had been hit by “friendly fire”.

The city filed a motion to dismiss the suit on Monday, claiming the suit “ignores established Georgia law showing that the City cannot be compelled to turn over public records related to a pending law enforcement investigation”. In a move showing the importance of the ongoing case to all levels of government in Georgia, the state attorney general, Chris Carr, submitted an amicus curiae brief on Wednesday in support of the city’s motion.

The 18 January raid was coordinated by the GBI, leading Daniel Paez to ask on Thursday: “How on earth do they get to be the ones to investigate? It’s a quote-unquote independent investigation, without any oversight.”

Paez also noted that his sibling was not killed immediately, and that a gunshot wound to the head probably caused their death, according to the county’s report. “That made me imagine what could have happened. Could he have survived if not shot to the head? Did they look at him before shooting him?”

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