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Atlanta City Councilmember pens somber community letter, says activist shooting death should be independent investigation

Liliana Bakhtiari released an open letter to the community Friday.
Credit: Atlanta City Council

ATLANTA — An Atlanta City councilmember is calling for an independent investigation led by the Department of Justice to fairly look into the law enforcement shooting death of an environmental activist protesting the construction of a police training facility.

Liliana Bakhtiari released an open letter to the community on Friday to address last week's shootout at the future site Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. She emphasized her thoughts are not a reflection of anyone else at City Hall and touched on the city's lease agreement, the lack of body camera video and the questions that linger about how events played out -- and concern over the difficulty to get answers.

It all surrounds the death of a protester with the "Defend the Atlanta Forest" movement. Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, was killed as law enforcement officers were conducting a clearing operation last week to remove trespassers from the old prison farm site in DeKalb County, where the Atlanta Police Foundation aims to build a new public safety training academy. Critics of the construction have dubbed the site "Cop City." 

According to the GBI, Paez Teran was in a tent when Georgia State Patrol troopers asked them to leave. Paez Teran fired a shot at a trooper, striking the law enforcement officer; several troopers then returned fire, authorities said. The trooper survived, Paez Teran died at the site, authorities said.

"I am not here to draw a line in the sand. Im not here to pick a side or to polarize this discussion or the traumatic events that have occurred any further than they already have been," she wrote. "The worst possible thing has happened. Two people were shot and one of those people lost their life."

The events have snowballed over the last week with several arrests of protesters and calls for an investigation into the trooper shooting.

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston will prosecute protesters accused of domestic terrorism. DeKalb County court records show 27 protesters have been arrested since December. This does not include the six people arrested after the violent protests in Atlanta that left businesses damaged and an Atlanta police cruiser burned. The Fulton County District Attorney is overseeing those cases.

Boston has recused her office from investigating the law enforcement shooting. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Wednesday a special prosecutor would be sworn in to take over the case.

"I greatly respect DA Boston for recusing herself in the investigation of last Wednesdays events, and I echo the call for an independent prosecutor to be appointed. However, I believe we must go beyond an independent prosecutor —the GBI was part of the task force that conducted this sweep, and therefore cannot maintain an unbiased investigation into the shooting of the state trooper and Torts death. This is not bias; it is simply fact," the councilmember said.

She said the GBI is too close to the case to be trusted to truly be fair  -- which would be a disservice to Paez Teran and their family.

"I urge whoever take over this investigation to investigate the shooting and death of Tort, not Tort themselves. This is a differentiation I believe GBI incapable of doing, given their leadership in the sweep last week. So again, this investigation must be handed over to an independent agency and all parties involved in last Wednesday’s events should recuse themselves immediately," she said.

Read the full statement below.

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