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NBC Environmental activist was fatally shot in head with hands up during peaceful protest

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

March 13, 2023, 10:11 AM PDT / Updated March 13, 2023, 11:07 AM PDT

An environmental activist died after raising hands and being shot from head to toe by police nearly two months ago near Atlanta, the person's family and attorneys said Monday. The activist known as “Tortuguita,” whose full name is Manuel Esteban Páez Terán, suffered 14 gunshot wounds on Jan. 18, family attorneys said. Tortuguita, 26, was at a peaceful protest and occupation of the South River Forest when gunfire erupted, loved ones have said. “Manuel was shot so many times and by different firearms that the tracks of the bullets running through the body converge and intersect," attorney Brian Spears told reporters, citing an autopsy commissioned by the family. "The autopsy identified 14 separate gunshot injuries." The autopsy, conducted by a former state medical examiner, Dr. Kris Sperry, showed the fatal wound was a shot through Tortuguita's right eye, along with other wounds to the left upper chest, abdomen, arms and leg, lawyers said. Tortuguita identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns.

"The gunshot to the head would have killed them instantly but probably ... not before they were able to raise their hands and arms in front of their body," Spears said.

Police entered the forest on Jan. 18 in an effort to clear the area of activists, who had camped out there.

The GBI claims that Tortuguita shot and injured a state trooper before officers returned fire. However, there’s no body camera video of the shooting of the trooper, the state agency has said.

The Atlanta Police Department plans to build an 85-acre training facility in the forest, which is just southeast of city limits.

But environmental groups oppose those construction plans, claiming it would destroy a tree canopy, harm habitat for amphibians and migratory birds and lead to urban flooding.

The conflict surrounding “Cop City” has been simmering for about two years. Tortuguita was shot during a protest against the police facility.

A representative for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. An Atlanta police spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation over the confrontation.

Tortuguita's mother, Belkis Teran, and her lawyers said state investigators have been slow to release any information.

“I try to be strong, to continue Manuel's legacy,” the grieving mother said. "For the love of my family and for all of those who loved Manuel, I want answers for my child’s homicide. I’m asking for answers to my child’s homicide."

In the confrontation that ended in Tortuguita’s death, seven others were arrested.

“The forest was being cleared in an unprecedented crackdown against the protesters. The police went to the forest that morning planning for violence,” said Jeff Filipovits, another family attorney

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