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Climate activist killed in ‘Cop City’ protest sustained 57 gunshot wounds, official autopsy says, but questions about gunpowder residue remain

<i>R.J. Rico/AP</i><br/>Vienna holds a photo of her slain partner
R.J. Rico/AP
Vienna holds a photo of her slain partner

By Nick Valencia, Devon M. Sayers and Pamela Kirkland, CNN

An environmental activist killed earlier this year while protesting a planned law enforcement training facility in Atlanta sustained “at least” 57 gunshot wounds, according to a county medical examiner report.

One central question the autopsy leaves unanswered is whether there was forensic evidence proving, as authorities have claimed, that the activist, Manuel Esteban Paez “Tortuguita” Terán, fired a gun.

In the report, the examiner noted there was no visible gunpowder observed on Terán’s hands.

But the report also notes a test was performed to determine whether trace amounts of gunpowder residue were present and the results of that test are not included in the report. State investigators and the prosecutor assigned to the case declined to say what the results of the test were.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the agency tasked with investigating the shooting, has said officers shot Terán after the activist shot and seriously wounded a state trooper on January 18, as law enforcement worked to clear protesters from the site of a proposed training facility, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents.

Fellow protesters and Terán’s family have disputed that account and have said Terán would not have fired at law enforcement.

The GBI previously released a photograph of a 9 mm handgun they say was in Terán’s possession. “Forensic ballistic analysis has confirmed that the projectile recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Terán’s handgun,” GBI said January news release. The agency also said it confirmed Terán legally purchased the Smith & Wesson gun they say was recovered on scene.

The GBI told CNN Thursday they have completed their investigation.

“The casefile was given to the Mountain Circuit District Attorney’s Office (Special Prosecutor) on April 14, 2023,” Nelly Miles, a spokesperson for the agency, told CNN in an email.

What the autopsy report says

The autopsy was conducted by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s office the day after the shooting, according to a copy of the autopsy report released to CNN Thursday.

“The autopsy revealed at least 57 gunshot wounds,” the report said. “Collectively, the gunshots resulted in (the activist’s) death and therefore the cause of death is designated as multiple gunshot wounds.”

The report did not specify the total number of bullets that made contact.

It lists the manner of death as “homicide.”

The report says “the gunshot wound to the head would have been fatal by itself,” but that shot was “unlikley” to have been “the first wound inflicted.”

Terán, who was non-binary and more commonly known by fellow activists as “Tortugita,” was in a tent when law enforcement agencies arrived on the scene that morning, authorities have said. According to the GBI, law enforcement was clearing out any person found to be trespassing on the land, part of which is owned by the city of Atlanta and part of which is owned by neighboring DeKalb County.

An independent autopsy commissioned by Terán’s family and described at a previous news conference claimed the activist was seated with their hands raised when they sustained at least some of the wounds. That autopsy — which notes Terán was shot about a dozen times by ammunition used in handguns and shotguns — could neither prove nor disprove the allegation the activist was armed.

The autopsy report from the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s office says attempts to determine Terán’s body position at the time of the shooting would be “fraught with potential inaccuracies.”

Family ‘devastated’ by report’s findings

The GBI declined to comment on the newly released DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s report and referred questions to the special prosecutor.

The special prosecutor in the case, George Christian, told CNN he plans to have an initial meeting with the GBI next week, after being assigned the case on March 8. Christian said he received a hard drive with case information last week, but has not reviewed it yet, and added he is “on the very front end” of his review of the case.

He said he “can’t give a timeframe” for how long his review will last.

The Georgia State Patrol trooper who was shot during the incident “is still recuperating,” an agency spokesperson told CNN Thursday. The agency has declined to identify the trooper.

In a news release regarding the autopsy report, Terán’s mother, Belkis Terán, said, “We are devastated to learn that our child, our sweet Manny, was mercilessly gunned down by police and suffered 57 bullet wounds all over their body.”

The release added that the activist’s family continues to seek “answers that have been withheld.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Dakin Andone contributed to this report.

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