- Jeff Filipovitscivil rights attorney based in DeKalb County, Atlanta.
New details from an independent autopsy of the activist fatally shot by Atlanta police in January concludes their hands were raised up and in front of their body when they were killed. Georgia State Patrol shot Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán during a raid on an encampment of forest protectors who oppose the construction of Atlanta’s $90 million police training center dubbed “Cop City.” An independent autopsy released Monday also shows 26-year-old Tortuguita was likely seated cross-legged when they were shot 14 times. Tortuguita’s family on Friday sued the city of Atlanta after the release of more video evidence of the shooting was blocked. “There’s no reason to withhold this evidence. The public deserves to know. More importantly, the family deserves to know,” says civil rights attorney Jeff Filipovits, who is representing the family. He adds that despite law enforcement claims that Tortuguita may have fired on officers, there is no evidence of that.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to Georgia, where a newly released independent autopsy of the activist fatally shot by Atlanta police in January concludes their hands were raised up and in front of their body when they were killed. Georgia State Patrol shot Manuel Esteban Terán, who was known as Tortuguita and uses the they/them pronouns, during a raid on an encampment of forest protectors who oppose the construction of Atlanta’s $90 million police training center dubbed Cop City, the largest such police training center, if built, in the country. The independent autopsy, released Monday at a news conference by Tortuguita’s family, shows the 26-year-old activist was likely seated cross-legged when they were shot 14 times. This is Tortuguita’s father, Joel Paez, speaking Monday at a news conference in Decatur, Georgia.
JOEL PAEZ: My child was an upstanding individual that he gave his life for others. They gave his life for his ideas. They defend the environment. They convinced others with conviction and also with understanding and never with violence. My child is a hero.
AMY GOODMAN: Tortuguita’s family has sued the city of Atlanta after the release of more video evidence of the shooting of their child was blocked. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or GBI, alleges Tortuguita fired on an officer first during the raid and was killed by return fire, but says there’s no bodycam footage of the shooting. At Monday’s news conference, Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Terán, called on the GBI to release its investigative report into the killing.
BELKIS TERÁN: My child, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was killed here in Atlanta on the 18th of January, 2023. We still do not know anything. It was killed, our most beloved family member and the most caring person that any group of people could have. And there is only silence.
Manuel loved the forest, gave them peace. They meditate there. The forest connect them with God. I never thought that Manuel could die in a meditation position. My heart is destroyed. I invest so much time, care and dedication to educate my children to become active members of the society. I gave them love and compassion as tools to make the world a better place.
But now there is no answer, answers. I try to be strong, to continue Manuel’s legacy for the love of my family and for all those loved Manuel. I want answers for my child’s homicide. I’m asking for answers to my child’s homicide. I am suffering for my right to this answer and that I have not been given and I deserve. I deserve answers. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Belkis Terán, the mother of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, speaking Monday. Just the day before, she and other family members joined activists to spread Tortuguita’s ashes in a memorial ceremony in Weelaunee People’s Park.
For more, we go to Atlanta to speak with Jeff Filipovits, the civil rights attorney representing Terán’s family.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Jeff, if you could start off by talking about what you understand happened at this point and the meditation position that Tortuguita’s mom was talking about? How is it that the autopsy showed that Tortuguita was sitting in a cross-legged position with arms up? The police say that Tortuguita shot them.
JEFF FILIPOVITS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
So, I want to be clear about what the autopsy shows and what it doesn’t show, because the autopsy does not give us the conclusive answers that all of us hope that it does. The autopsy shows exit wounds on the palms of both of Manuel Terán’s hands and shows wounds to their legs that are consistent with being seated in a cross-legged position when that shot was fired. But the autopsy doesn’t answer the question about what happened in the moments leading up to the shooting. And when we’re talking about police use of force, and especially police use of deadly force, those moments can be determinative. A fraction of a second can make all of the difference in the world.
And so, while we’re trying to shed light on and bring public knowledge to everything that has happened as much as we can, ultimately, until the GBI explains to us what happened, releases their witness interviews and releases any other evidence that they have, we’re not going to be able to piece this together.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what about the issue of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation asking the city to hold off on releasing more video footage? What is the reason they’re giving for that?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: Well, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is invoking the pending investigation exception to the Georgia Open Records Act. But the city of Atlanta makes its own independent decision as to whether to release videos. And so, the city began releasing videos, promised to release videos on an ongoing basis, and only after the GBI contacted the city did the city change its mind and decide not to release those videos. It’s part of a pattern of locking down information so that we cannot figure out what happened.
The GBI certainly has the duty to interview witnesses without disclosing to each of those witnesses what other evidence there is. That’s standard in all investigations. But they have had plenty of time to do that. And at this point, there’s no reason to withhold this evidence. The public deserves to know. More importantly, the family deserves to know. And instead of any shred of evidence or explanation, the only thing we got was the immediate and selective narrative that was released by the GBI, and then silence. And so, we are doing everything we can to get the evidence that is available.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that narrative is supposedly that Manuel had a Smith & Wesson gun that shot a trooper with and that there’s a ballistics match between the injured trooper and that gun. Has the family received any actual evidence or seen any actual evidence to back this up?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: No.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about activists believing that friendly fire caused the trooper’s injuries? One of the four bodycam videos released by the Atlanta Police Department, APD, February 6 supports the assessment. In it, a police officer, an APD officer, can be heard remarking, “You effed your own guy up,” a few minutes after the shooting. Can you explain that, Jeff?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: I can’t, because after that video was produced, the city stopped producing additional evidence. Our questions are: What did that officer know? What was the source of that information? What was communicated over the radio? What was said by other officers? We need all of that information so that we can place that statement in context. Every time we get a bit of information, it raises more questions. Those questions continue to go unanswered.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Tortuguita’s brother, Daniel Paez, speaking at Monday’s news conference.
DANIEL PAEZ: I can’t even attend a vigil for Manny without 10 cop cars showing up or a low-flying helicopter showing up to intimidate us. In Atlanta, I feel hated. The current narrative is that my voice values less for being out of state, despite my 10 years of military service. It’s ironic I’m trusted with nuclear secrets, but I am not trusted with the evidence of my sibling’s murder.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Daniel Paez, the brother of Tortuguita. Jeff Filipovits, if you can talk about what is happening at this protest? Dozens of the forest defenders — and they’re all different groupings of people who are opposed to what, if it’s built, will be the largest police training facility in the country, in the Weelaunee Forest outside Atlanta. Dozens have been charged with domestic terrorism?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: Yes. It’s really a troubling development. What I can speak to specifically is the arrest warrants that were taken out against each of these demonstrators, charging them with domestic terrorism. When an arrest warrant is issued, there has to be a factual basis for it. They officer has to set forth the facts in an affidavit that establish probable cause. And what we see in each of these affidavits is that there is no specific allegation of any one of these individuals engaging in an act of violence, no specific allegation that any one of these individuals conspired to engage in violence. And so we see a rubber stamp of these charges, and as a result, a seemingly automatic denial of bond for all of those arrested.
But what appears to be happening is that people are being swept up with this label regardless of whether they’ve committed any crime beyond criminal trespass. It’s an obvious show of force. It’s an obvious escalation. And it is a precedent that, having been set, will be applied to other groups. It will be applied to the next protest. Should someone at a protest commit an act of vandalism, are those who stand around that person now also domestic terrorists? If nothing more than property damage is what is required to support that charge, then we are living in a vastly different set of laws and set of rules than I think any of us really realize. It is contrary to so many core values of this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And at a press conference in February, you said that many of those who were present at the raid where Manuel was killed were even afraid to speak to you due to the mounting police targeting they’re experiencing. Could you talk about that?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: Yeah. I mean, anyone who was in the forest does not want to come forward. Now, as far as we know right now, there was no other direct witness to Manuel’s death aside from law enforcement. There were other people in the forest. Many of those people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Would someone who was not arrested but in the forest want to come forward and put their name on a statement to anyone? Of course not, because look what has happened to every other person charged with domestic terrorism. They are facing an intense criminal charge. Many — most have been denied bond. And that is a way to silence people. I don’t know what else it could be.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from an arrest affidavit for someone charged with domestic terrorism: quote, “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing,” “arrested while sleeping in a hammock with another defendant,” said accused is also known as a “known member” of “a prison abolitionist movement.” Domestic terrorist. Jeff Filipovits?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Now, they either have evidence that these people are engaged in a conspiracy to commit violence, that is such a frightening display of coordination, and that just, for whatever reason, simply has not come to fruition, or these are charges that are not supported, that will not hold up, and these are charges that are being used, even though they know it won’t hold up, ultimately, because they can use it now to stifle dissent, so that they can build the training center that they want to build.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the lawsuit that the family — you filed on behalf of the family of Tortuguita?
JEFF FILIPOVITS: It’s an open records lawsuit under Georgia law seeking for the release of the evidence that the city of Atlanta promised to release. The city of Atlanta publicly stated it would do so. There is no provision in the Open Records Act which allows a public entity to simply change its mind. There is a — previously, the law did provide a limited number of days in which an entity could change its response to an open records request. That provision was removed in the most recent version of the law. And regardless, they have had plenty of time. The fact that another government agency disagrees with their decision is not sufficient reason to — it’s not a justification to refrain from making public records public. Remember, these are public records. The default is that they belong to the people and should be released to the people. And so, once this government starts to release these piecemeal and promises to do so, they have an obligation to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: They said they carefully orchestrated the raid that ultimately killed Tortuguita. How is it then that there isn’t police-cam video? You have 10 seconds.
JEFF FILIPOVITS: I don’t know. It is inexcusable. They were forming firing squads, shooting pepper balls. They were prepared for this. They knew that things could go catastrophically wrong. And for some reason, they decided not to put on a bodycam.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Filipovits, we want to thank you very much for being with us, civil rights attorney representing the family of Tortuguita. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.