The state troopers who shot and killed a protester in January in a forest near Atlanta will not be criminally charged, a Georgia prosecutor said on Friday.
George Christian, the district attorney for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit, said in a statement that the troopers’ use of lethal force as they were trying to clear protesters from the site where a new police training campus for Atlanta was being built was “objectively reasonable under the circumstances.”
The 26-year-old protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by the nickname Tortuguita, had camped in the South River Forest for weeks in opposition to the development of the project, the Public Safety Training Center, which critics refer to as “Cop City.”
Mr. Christian, who was appointed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the Jan. 18 shooting, issued a 31-page report saying that at the time of the shooting, the protester posed an “immediate threat” to the team of Georgia State Patrol S.W.A.T. troopers who had been assigned to remove demonstrators from the forest in and around the construction site.
Tortuguita refused to comply with troopers’ commands to vacate a tent, according to the report, so officers used a “pepperball launcher” to fire a projectile containing pepper spray into the tent. Tortuguita then fired a 9-millimeter handgun through the tent, striking one trooper, and six troopers returned gunfire, killing the protester, the report said.
The report said that after the shooting stopped, “a loud boom sounded and white smoke came from the front area of the tent,” which troopers believed to be from an “improvised explosive device (IED) deployed by Terán.”
The shooting was a flashpoint in the protracted fight over the police training center, which detractors say will contribute to the militarization of law enforcement and devastate some of Atlanta’s tree canopy.
Protesters have been skeptical of the official police account of the shooting. They remember Tortuguita as a peaceful person, and accuse the S.W.A.T. team of murder.
An organizer of the efforts to stop the project, Kamau Franklin, said in an interview Friday that Mr. Christian’s report only raises further questions about the events of Jan. 18. The new details “twist the story,” Mr. Franklin said, so that “Terán somehow now is some Rambo figure in a cloth tent, able to take multiple gunshots, fire back and launch an explosive device.” He called the claims “just outrageous.”
Mr. Franklin noted that the effort to learn what happened had been frustrated by the fact that the state troopers involved were not wearing body cameras. He and other activists have demanded an independent investigation of the shooting.
Public records indicate that Tortuguita purchased the handgun legally in 2021. But the protester’s mother, Belkis Terán, has described her child as “a pacifist” who would not have used the gun to hurt someone, except perhaps in self-defense.
Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have portrayed the “Stop Cop City” activists as criminals who pose a threat to government institutions. A Georgia grand jury indicted 61 activists on racketeering and other charges last month, accusing them of engaging in violence, intimidation and property destruction as part of a campaign to stall construction of the training center.
Christopher Carr, the state’s Republican attorney general, has described the defendants as a group of destructive anarchists.
More than 40 of the defendants in the racketeering case had previously been charged under the state’s domestic terrorism statute, accused of attacking police officers and damaging private property in an effort to thwart construction.
Opponents and some legal experts say that the state has taken a heavy-handed approach to the protests, and that the Stop Cop City movement is largely composed of peaceful protesters who believe the training center plan was pushed through by the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation, a law enforcement nonprofit.
In May, at the attorney general’s behest, a team of S.W.A.T. officers from the Atlanta Police Department raided a house serving as the headquarters for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that helps social justice activists bond out of jail. The officers arrested three people on charges of money laundering and charity fraud.
The judge in the case, DeKalb County Judge James Altman, said of the state’s claim about financial crimes, “I don’t find it real impressive,” and added, “There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of thousands of dollars going to illegal activities.”
The protests against the training center have mostly been peaceful. In June, after a vote by the Atlanta City Council to provide more money for the project, a coalition of activists started a petition drive to force a voter referendum on the issue. The sponsors submitted what they said were more than 116,000 signatures — roughly twice the necessary number — but the city has delayed verifying them.