Credit: AP Photo/Alex Slitz
Two autopsies of Atlanta protester killed by police could both be valid. An expert explains
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with former U.S. Attorney Michael Moore about two seemingly contradictory autopsies of a protester killed by police in Atlanta.
In January, protestor Manuel Teran was shot multiple times by police in the South River Forest in Atlanta. Police say Teran fired first. Teran was among many protesters who had been camping there for months to demonstrate opposition to the planned public safety training center that protesters call “Cop City.” After Teran’s death, at least two autopsies that we know of were performed:by the Dekalb County Medical Examiner and by the GBI. What they reveal offers some insight into what happened, but a complete explanation of the events of that January day is still elusive. For a little context on what has been revealed, we turn to Michael Moore, a former U.S. attorney and partner at Moore Hall in Atlanta. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: How common is it in a case like this for two or maybe more autopsies to be performed?
Michael Moore: Well, it's not uncommon really at all. Oftentimes you'll see, especially in cases where there's been a police shooting, that you'll see an official autopsy done. Sometimes you'll see second autopsies done by families who are still searching for answers and explanations into what exactly happened. You may also find that you have in this case, for instance, you have the DeKalb County Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy and certain analysis then done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. So having that type of collaboration in investigations is not uncommon at all.
Peter Biello: I see. And how much variation could one expect between competent medical examiners looking at the same — at the same body? Can we expect a lot of variation?
Michael Moore: With competent medical examiners and pathologists, while some of the initial and maybe the visual aspects may be different, they could both be valid. You just may have some different interpretations.
Peter Biello: I wanted to ask you about some of what's been discussed in the public already with respect to gunshot residue, because the DeKalb County medical examiner wrote on the report, "Gunshot residue is not seen on the hands." But they also did mention that the investigative agency would look at the hands. The GBI did find a few particles of gunshot residue. So what do you make of those two findings?
Michael Moore: I think that it's standard law enforcement investigation. And I really didn't find anything that was particularly alarming with the discrepancy of the findings. And all you have to do is look at the two different reports and exactly what was done. If you look at the DeKalb County medical examiner's report, Dr. Gowitt noted —
Peter Biello: You were referring to DeKalb County medical examiner, Dr. Gerald Gowitt.
Michael Moore: That's correct. The hands of the individual were bagged. That's a standard practice by law enforcement agencies when there's been a shooting. He's not doing a what I would call the forensic test for gunshot residue. He actually notes in his report that those tests, a gunshot residue test, was done and turned over to the GBI for analysis.
Peter Biello: In other words, it's not always possible to see with the naked eye gunshot residue. So saying you didn't see it is one thing, but then sending it to a different agency that uses technology to really zoom in is an entirely different thing. And those two things can coexist.
Michael Moore: They coexist. And it's really entirely appropriate to do that, to send it in and have those swabs examined. Dr. Gowitt's job was really to determine the manner and cause of death. It's not to get into the analysis, necessarily, of: Did this person fire a gun at the responding law enforcement officers?
Peter Biello: One other thing worth correcting, because I know there's been some misunderstanding about this in the report by the DeKalb County medical examiner. There were 57 gunshot wounds. The same bullet can enter and exit and possibly reenter, causing many different wounds. So I just want to clarify that.
Michael Moore: That's exactly right. Dr. Gowitt notes a number of bullet wounds, but the same bullet can pass through multiple places on the body to cause a number of additional entry wounds. So if you think about this in terms of someone being shot in the arm and it passing through the arm and entering the person's body, well, that's two entrance wounds, but would done by one bullet. And so it's difficult to determine from a medical examiner's point of view how many actual shots were fired. That's done, again, by forensics and crime scene analysis and evidence — actual physical evidence — collected at the scene, shooting incident reports, those types of things to determine how many rounds were actually fired. But one bullet can certainly cause more than one entrance wound.
Peter Biello: What does the release of this type of information do to an investigation? Is it compromised in any way because this information is now public?
Michael Moore: Well, it can be. And so there's really a sort of a general rule — and the state bar governs rules for prosecutors — about what information can and cannot be put out in the public domain during an investigation like this. And it's really about — the purpose behind the rules is about maintaining public confidence in an investigation. And so sort of piecemeal or, you know, drib-drab information sort of dropping out is not an ideal situation because one report may say one thing and another report seems to say something. But when read together, they're not inconsistent. However, if you don't have that opportunity to look at them together, you might think that one has information that may be particularly important in a case and then you find out it's not. So piecemealing information out is not always a good practice. And I think typically, you know, good prosecutors make sure they don't do that.
Peter Biello: So we are now more than three months out from the killing of Manuel Teran. What at this stage are prosecutors likely to be doing as they seek answers?
Michael Moore: Well, we really have this autopsy report completed by Dr. Gowitt, and I think it's just been a matter of a few weeks, actually, since it was finalized. I think he signed off on it some time, if I'm correct, about the middle of March. At that point, the complete case file, including the shooting reports, the reconstructions, the witness statements, and now the autopsy reports and chemical analysis, those types of things, that whole file is presented to a prosecutor to review and he or she will take their time to make sure that they understand the evidence that's in front of them, to understand what witnesses who were on the scene have said about the case, and then how that compares to the physical evidence that they would have available to present or to consider as they make decisions about whether or not they should present criminal charges to a grand jury. So all the lawyers involved, whether it's on the government side or on the civil side, would be doing a really deep dive into this now complete case file.