Attorney: Family ‘did not find answers’ in second autopsy of slain activist

230313-Decatur-Manuel "Tortuguita" Teran's brother Daniel Paez, from left, mother Belkis Teran and brother Pedro Santema hug after Belkis Teran spoke during a press conference Monday, March 13, 2023, in Decatur to speak about the results of an autopsy they commissioned. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
230313-Decatur-Manuel "Tortuguita" Teran's brother Daniel Paez, from left, mother Belkis Teran and brother Pedro Santema hug after Belkis Teran spoke during a press conference Monday, March 13, 2023, in Decatur to speak about the results of an autopsy they commissioned. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

The family of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, the activist killed in January by Georgia State Patrol troopers during a clearing operation at the site of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center, on Monday released a private autopsy conducted after the DeKalb County medical examiner performed the initial examination.

The family’s autopsy was limited because Teran’s body had largely been dissected during the first examination to retrieve bullet fragments from the 14 gunshot wounds.

The Teran family autopsy was performed by Dr. Kris L. Sperry, the GBI’s former chief medical examiner who in 2015 retired abruptly after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found he had claimed hundreds of work hours at the GBI when he actually was working for clients of his forensic-science consulting firm. The AJC found Sperry had taken on more than 500 cases as a paid forensic expert, and that his moonlighting had created conflicts of interest and undermined his scientific and medical judgment.

The AJC investigation of Sperry examined court filings, depositions and trial transcripts from more than five dozen of his private cases. Time after time, lawyers and other adversaries accused Sperry of tailoring conclusions to suit his paying customers.

Sperry did not attend Monday’s press conference. Decatur-based civil rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits, who represent the Teran family, said in a statement they have worked with Sperry in other cases and he routinely serves as an expert witness.

“Sperry’s supervisors at the GBI previously consistently praised his performance,” the statement says. “He remains eminently qualified as an expert in the field of forensic pathology and routinely testifies as an expert witness. The issues (the AJC) identify concerning Dr. Sperry relate to a record-keeping and billing dispute from seven years ago that did not result in any charges against him. That disagreement presents no basis to question the results of the independent autopsy.”

Sperry’s autopsy of Teran found that the 26-year-old suffered wounds from both handguns and a shotgun. One lethal wound to the head likely occurred at the end of the volley, Sperry reported, because it would have been incapacitating. Other wounds could have been lethal, but not instantly debilitating, according to the report.

“At some point during the course of being shot, the decedent was able to raise his hands and arms up and in front of his body, with his palms facing towards his upper body,” the autopsy says.

Teran used pronouns they/them. Sperry’s report did not make that distinction.

While the autopsy suggests Teran’s hands were raised, it is not clear when they were raised and how high. The autopsy doesn’t conclude whether Terans hands were raised above the head in a position of surrender or whether the hands were in a lower, defensive position after being shot.

Sperry’s report also says Teran was seated, likely cross-legged, while being shot. The report notes Teran’s tibia and fibula on the left leg was fractured. According to the report, the large gunshot defect found on the left leg is “consistent with having been caused by a shotgun.”

GBI officials have said Teran shot first and wounded a trooper in the stomach, before officers returned fire. The family has questioned that account.

“It is impossible to determine if the decedent had been holding a firearm, or not holding a firearm, either before he was shot or while he was being shot the multiple times,” Sperry’s autopsy report says.

During Monday’s press conference, attorneys for the family said the second autopsy doesn’t provide the answers they seek.

“You are not going to find the answers that you want in that autopsy,” Filipovits said. “It is not enough for us to work backwards from it to figure out what happened.”

Filipovits said the only people that know what happened are the officers who were in the forest on the day of the Jan. 18 shooting, and the GBI officials who are investigating.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Teran’s family said they want answers, Spears said.

“We still do not know what happened in the forest in the morning of January 18,” Spears said. “The second autopsy is a snapshot of what happened but it’s not the whole story. What we want is simple: GBI meet with the family and release the investigative report.”

The family has sued the city of Atlanta under the Georgia Open Records Act, claiming Atlanta Police had no valid reason to withhold body camera footage of its officers in the forest on the day of the shooting.

Attached as exhibits in that lawsuit are letters from Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office and the GBI, advising the city to withhold any more video releases.

“It is not unusual for a local law enforcement agency to have evidence (such as videos or documents) that another law enforcement agency is using in an investigation,” wrote senior assistant attorney general Jennifer Colangelo to the Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson on Feb. 14. “The local agencies will withhold the evidence in their possession ... until all agencies involved have closed their investigations and prosecution is complete.

“Similarly, the GBI conducts chemical analyses of blood or other substances that it receives from local law enforcement agencies and sends the results back to those agencies to use in their investigations and/or prosecutions. The GBI will not release its own copies of those scientific results until the local agency has finished its investigation and any resulting prosecution is complete.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Some body camera footage from officers on the scene was released by APD on Feb. 8 and no other video has been released since. The videos do not show the shooting incident.

In a Friday statement, the GBI said it requested a halt to more video footage being released to “prevent inappropriate release of evidence” and to preserve the integrity of the investigation and to ensure “the facts of the incident are not tainted,” according to a statement.

The lawsuit asks the court to rule that the city of Atlanta violated the Open Records Act and must release the requested records.

Mother Belkis Teran said Manuel was a caring person and beloved among family members. Teran’s brother, Daniel Paez, said he has been receiving messages from people telling him Manuel got what he deserved.

“In Atlanta, I feel hated. The current narrative is that my voice is valued less for being out of state, despite my 10 years of military service,” Paez said. “It’s ironic, I’m trusted with nuclear secrets but I’m not trusted with the evidence of my sibling’s murder.”

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