Georgia police killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán on Jan. 18 as Terán was protesting against Cop City, the massive police training facility under construction in Weelaunee Forest in Atlanta. But, now that prosecutors have mass-charged activists in an unprecedented use of racketeering statutes, those close to the case say the state has sunk to new lows by entering Terán’s personal diary into public evidence against defendants.
This article was co-published with nonprofit news outlet The Appeal.
On November 6, dozens of people walked through the doors of the Fulton County Courthouse to be arraigned for charges of organized crime and racketeering for their participation in the movement to stop Cop City, the massive $90 million-plus police training facility that has sparked widespread opposition for over two years. Defendants were given 24 hours to turn themselves in at 10 a.m. that morning as part of what experts have said is an unprecedented use of racketeering statutes to criminalize protest. Outside, at least 100 supporters gathered downtown to show support of the #ATL61 with banners, music, and shirts that read “Put me on the RICO.” The demonstrators had even unfurled a red carpet leading to the courthouse’s main entrance.
Prosecutors, however, appear to have prepared some public-relations tactics of their own. On November 15, the state, in one of its first motions in the case, submitted Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán’s alleged personal diary into evidence against the 61 defendants, in a move that the defense and those close to Terán say was unnecessary, an intentional smear campaign, and a gross violation of Terán’s privacy. Judge Kimberly Adams granted the defense’s motion to seal the journal from public view on November 22.
Terán was shot to death on January 18 by Georgia police in a multi-agency raid near the forest where the facility is being built. Since then, law enforcement—including local agencies and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation—have refused to release evidence to Terán’s family or let an independent body investigate the killing. While police have alleged that Terán attempted to shoot at them that day, autopsies revealed that Terán did not have gunshot residue on their body when police killed them. An independent autopsy conducted by the family suggests that Terán was sitting down with their hands up. In contrast, DeKalb County’s autopsy found “there are too many variables with respect to movement of the decedent and the shooters to draw definitive conclusions concerning [Terán’s] body position.” Police reportedly shot Terán 14 times, leaving them with 57 bullet wounds.
Terán’s alleged diary includes both anti-police statements and positive visions for the nation’s future. Some pages include doodles of prisons and cop cars on fire, the acronym ACAB (short for “all cops are bastards”), and, perhaps most controversially, a drawing of a masked man shooting a pig wearing a police officer’s uniform. But the diary also contains messages of peace and hope, including musings on a world without police, the desire to form artists’ collectives, plans for community book drives, and writings against racism and fascism. In some entries, Terán also wrote of severe personal trauma they had endured in the past.
However, defense attorneys working on behalf of Cop City protesters say they have yet to independently verify that the diary belonged to Terán or that Terán personally wrote each message. In interviews with Mainline and The Appeal, those close to Terán said that, if verified, the diary proves little other than Terán’s frustration with the U.S. policing system—and certainly does nothing to prove that the broader protest movement against Cop City is a racketeering conspiracy.
Terán’s partner at the time of the shooting, Vienna Forrest, is currently facing charges of domestic terrorism stemming from their arrest in December 2022 and is also included in the RICO indictment. In an interview with Mainline and The Appeal, they emphasize that people should not judge Terán based on a personal document of extremely private thoughts.
“You can’t criminalize an ideology,” Forrest said. “[The journal] seems useless as evidence to me because that’s just freedom of speech. What Tortuguita said in public, how they acted throughout their life[…] that’s more proof to me than what someone might be writing in a personal journal that’s supposed to be their own internal thoughts and only meant to be read by them.”
In an interview, Forrest’s defense attorney, Lyra Foster, said that the state’s attempt to admit the journal is likely a publicity move rather than a legal strategy.
“Tortuguita obviously isn’t here to be on trial or to be charged with anything,” Foster explained. “There has been overwhelming support for Tort’s family, for Tort, and the defendants in this case. The state is losing in the court of public opinion. Attempting to admit the diary into evidence as part of the public record does nothing to further the state’s case.”
Foster added that prosecutors are “using a dead young person’s journal in order to try and inculpate young activists for two of the most serious crimes we have on the books for acts of civil disobedience, which the RICO legislative history explicitly excludes. A young person’s meandering thoughts put into writing will never be evidence that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and is a desperate media stunt.”
Since the filing, local news outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB, and Atlanta News First, have reported on the journal and state’s filing, parroting the state’s claim that the journal proves there is a criminal enterprise within the movement to occupy parts or all of the construction site of the police training facility. Reports have even painted Terán as violent or an extremist due to their critical views of policing and systemic injustices. But those close to Terán also say prosecutors and the press have painted a false portrait of their friend.
After the shooting, many people submitted their memories of Terán for a “Memories of Tort” website. “I remember Tortuguita as one of the softest and most generous people[…]They were an optimist, assuming the best of people and demonstrating through their own actions just how good humans can be,” one memorial reads.
Outside of Atlanta, other legal experts are deeply concerned about the precedent Georgia could set for social justice movements. Steven Donziger, a human rights attorney based in New York who has become a public figure after the energy company Chevron sued him for racketeering, said he’s worried this case could further set a precedent for prosecutors to file bad-faith racketeering charges against activists.
“It is deeply disturbing that the Georgia Attorney General attached a very personal and intimate diary without sealing it,” Donziger said. “Filing the personal diary of a dead [person] in open court, especially one killed by the police, is morally repugnant and a complete invasion of privacy both to Tort’s legacy and that of their family. It essentially deprives the defendants of their right to litigate the issue. It is the latest demonstration that the attorney general is abusing his power and has no real respect for the due process rights of the defendants. It is part of his own pattern of using the attacks on the protesters as a part of a broader attack on social protest and movement campaigning and lawyering.”
The Georgia Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The motion to admit Terán’s diary into evidence shocked the defense, some of whom described the filing as “improper” and “unethical” in conversations with Mainline and The Appeal. Further, the state submitted the full diary into evidence for public view within the motion, which experts said is unusual in filings of this nature. Elizabeth Taxel, a public defender in Atlanta for more than a decade and now the Director of Criminal Defense Practicum at the University of Georgia, says the Georgia Attorney General’s filing is unprecedented. In an interview, Taxel said that the prosecution would typically file a motion without attaching the actual alleged evidence.
“What’s particularly remarkable about this filing is the fact that the diary itself was included as an exhibit,” Taxel explained. “There’s an ethical prohibition against pre-trial publicity. While the rule speaks to extrajudicial statements, the attorney general, by filing a case that has national press coverage, is backdooring a piece of questionable evidence to the media. When jury pools have access to evidence that may be deemed inadmissible, their ability to get a fair trial is compromised.”
Taxel added that John Fowler, the Georgia Attorney General’s prosecutor, “intentionally filed it, when under no circumstances did it need to be filed.”
In response, defense attorneys have filed emergency motions to seal the journal. One such motion, filed on November 15, stated that “publishing an unauthenticated, potentially irrelevant, inflammatory, and inadmissible document in such a high-profile case was necessary and highly improper.”
In its motion, the prosecution argues that Terán’s journal should be submitted as evidence against the 61 defendants because they claim Terán was a “co-conspirator with the Defendants” and “part of the overall Defend the Atlanta Forest movement.” The motion argues the evidence is admissible as an “unavailable witness exception”—due to a witness who cannot testify because police killed them.
The state’s motion to admit the journal as evidence, like the original indictment, contains numerous errors and baseless claims, particularly in the state’s recounting of the police’s killing of Terán. The motion says that Terán and others were illegally in the forest, but locals say Terán and others were actually in the public park the day that Terán was killed.
“The issue I keep seeing is that police claimed Tort and others were trespassing, which is not true,” says local resident Joe Peery, who is familiar with the history of the site and has reviewed the state’s claims in the motion that filed the journal into evidence. “They were in Intrenchment Creek Park, which at that time was open to the public. They had every right to be in that park.”
Additionally, at the time of Terán’s death, permits for construction had not yet been issued for the Cop City facility itself; permits were not issued and announced until January 31. The motion also describes those in the area as “armed occupiers” who “unlawfully occupied the forested area, laid traps, and attacked first responders, innocent civilians, and individuals associated with the construction of the Training Center.”
The state’s legal filings have also listed details not yet proven in court—which Terán can no longer dispute. In one case, the motion claims a diary entry from April 21, 2021 detailed “notes on meetings in the forest[.]” However, according to Instagram posts, the Defend the Atlanta Forest efforts did not begin until three days later. Reports of people occupying the forest didn’t surface until February 2022, and seemingly no reporting from that period implicates Terán. Other entries in the diary suggest they were living in Florida during 2021.
As a result of these discrepancies and unverified reports from the state, fellow activists see the filing as little other than an attempt to smear someone who can no longer fight back.“The same people that murdered Tort are now attempting to assassinate them for a second time,” says Kamau Franklin, longtime Atlanta organizer and founder of Black liberation group Community Movement Builders, in an interview with Mainline and The Appeal. “Using their private thoughts and words, if we are to believe this is [Tort’s] diary, to claim a false conspiracy between people—many of which have never met Tort—is deplorable, unethical, unlawful, and a huge lie meant only to criminalize people and movements who had the nerve to challenge police violence in our community.”