No Charges For Georgia Troopers Who Killed Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán

Stone Mountain, GA — A Georgia prosecutor announced Friday, Oct. 6, that six Georgia State Patrol SWAT troopers – Brylend Myers, Jerry Parrish, Jonathan Salcedo, Mark Lamb, Ronaldo Kegel, and Royce Zah – will not face criminal charges in the January 18, 2023 shooting death of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Esteban Paez Terán, a nonbinary indigenous Venezuelan climate protester. Terán’s family and fellow activists believe they were murdered that day in the South River Forest near Atlanta, and much of the publicly available evidence from the incident casts doubt on the official narrative.

Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney George R. Christian was tasked with the investigation on March 8 by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, ostensibly for the purpose of conducting an independent investigation. His statement describes the shooting of Terán, which drew international outrage amid allegations of a cover-up, as “objectively reasonable.” According to autopsies, Terán received over 57 gunshot wounds when they were killed by troopers Myers, Parrish, Salcedo, Lamb, Kegel and Zah.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which answers to Georgia’s right-wing Attorney General Chris Carr, has always insisted that before being killed, Terán shot a gun at troopers after troopers fired pepper balls into a tent. This claim that was repeated again today by Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Christian, an outside prosecutor assigned to investigate Terán’s killing, which took place in unincorporated DeKalb County. The 31-page report attached to Christian’s press release outlines the justification for the killing, and relies almost entirely on the claims of the state troopers involved in the killing for establishing its narrative.

When confronted and killed by SWAT troopers, Terán had been sleeping in a public park, during its open hours. Police were sweeping the area in the South River Forest near Atlanta where protesters had been occupying the construction site of the unpopular and legally contested proposed police urban warfare complex nicknamed ‘Cop City’ and officially named the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The project is being pushed by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit funded by mega-corporations and seen by its opponents as a vehicle for enabling corruption in Atlanta politics.

Terán’s killing came during a time of escalation from Georgia authorities against protesters who had been occupying the forest set to be destroyed for ‘Cop City’ construction. Starting in December 2022 and during and after the incident involving Terán’s death, tree-sitters and other protesters opposing ‘Cop City’ have been charged with Georgia state-level Domestic Terrorism under a statute that is currently being challenged as unconstitutional.

Claims that ‘Tortuguita’ shot first have been met with suspicion, as what little primary evidence that has been publicly released doesn’t support this narrative. Atlanta Police Department (APD) body camera footage from officers near the shooting shows that APD officers believed the state trooper was shot by friendly fire (“you fucked your own officer up.”) In March, an independent autopsy concluded that the climate protester was shot and killed with their hands raised while sitting in a meditation position.

In April, the DeKalb County Medical examiner wrote that in their examination of Terán’s body, “gunpowder residue is not seen on the hands.” The GBI quickly jumped in to cast doubt on the DeKalb examiner’s report, insisting that Terán’s corpse did in fact contain the “presence of particles characteristic of gunshot primer residue” — while admitting the kind of residue they alleged was found on the body was often present on “victims of gunshot wounds.”

The GBI, which operates under the same umbrella of Georgia’s Department of Public Safety as the Georgia State Patrol troopers who killed Terán, has worked aggressively both to excuse Terán’s shooting and to criminalize the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement of which they were a part.

The GBI, along with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (appointed by Governor Brian Kemp), is a key player in the historically unprecedented political repression of the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement via Goergia’s court system – charging music festival attendees with Domestic Terrorism, hitting protesters with felonies for distributing fliers, charging bail fund legal aid workers with money laundering, and most recently indicting 61 protesters on racketeering charges meant for organized crime, often based solely on acts of political speech.

Michael Register, the director of GBI during and after the shooting, resigned from the position in June 2023, a move many speculated was related to the fallout from Teran’s death and subsequent allegations of a cover-up by GBI.

Terán’s family filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Police Department under the Georgia Open Records Act this March in a bid to uncover more documentation of the killing.

Royce Zah, one of the state troopers involved in killing Terán, is currently being sued in federal court by a woman who alleges he shot her in the face with a plastic bullet during May 2020 George Floyd protests in Atlanta, causing “permanent facial disfigurement.”

Georgia State Patrol has refused to release the disciplinary history of any of the 6 troopers, claiming, among other reasons, that “disclosure would compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts.”

Carr’s Georgia AG office is also conducting its own investigation into the shooting. His zealous role in criminalizing the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement, which has drawn condemnation from groups like Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, may cause some to question his agency’s capacity to rule neutrally on the matter.

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