Over the holiday weekend, CNN aired a pretty hard-hitting investigation of Shawn Parcells, the man who has become something of a cable news celebrity after assisting in an autopsy on Michael Brown.
Parcells became an overnight media star in August when he assisted in an autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family. He appeared time and again on major media outlets as a forensic pathology expert. He said over the years he’s testified in court dozens of times in several states.
But an investigation by CNN that included interviews with attorneys, law enforcement and physicians suggests Parcells isn’t the expert he seems to be . . .
Parcells, a Kansas native, says he became interested in death at age 12 when his grandfather passed away.
“I actually started doing autopsies my junior year in high school,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I love it.”
Right after high school, renowned pathologist Michael Baden made a visit to Kansas. Parcells snapped a photo with him.
By college, Parcells said, he was teaching first-year residents how to do autopsies. The campus newspaper, The Kansas State Collegian, wrote an article about him in 1999 headlined “Morbid Curiosity.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in life sciences from Kansas State in 2003, and he said he was immediately accepted to medical school in the Caribbean, but his wife got pregnant and he wanted her to receive her care in the United States, so he didn’t attend.
Earlier this year, Parcells’ LinkedIn page said he expected to start medical school at the International University of the Health Sciences in the Caribbean starting in September 2014. Later, the date was changed to 2015.
When CNN visited Parcells in his Overland Park, Kansas, home, he presented a photo of himself onstage at what appears to be a graduation ceremony at the New York Chiropractic College.
“I got a master’s degree in anatomy and physiology, with clinical correlation,” he said.
Asked where his diploma was, he replied that it was on the way. “It’s coming,” he said. “They mail it to you.”
The next day, at another on-camera interview, the conversation went like this:
CNN: So that master’s degree in New York, you have that degree?
Parcells: I will have it next month, yes.
CNN: I don’t mean the piece of paper. I mean have you been conferred that degree?
Parcells: Yes, I will. Next month.
CNN: Right now, as we speak, you have that degree?
Parcells: No, I do not.
Parcells doesn’t claim to have any specific license or certification to do the work he does. He knows how to do autopsies from “on-the-job training,” watching pathologists and assisting them at various morgues, he said . . .
He certainly sounded knowledgeable and authoritative on August 18 when he presented the findings of the Michael Brown autopsy to a nationally televised news conference.
[Dr. Michael] Baden, who conducted the autopsy, spoke first, and then introduced Parcells, saying he “has been instrumental in the autopsy evaluation.”
“First of all, I’m Professor Shawn Parcells,” Parcells said as he stood to address the reporters.
On his LinkedIn page and to CNN, Parcells said he’s an adjunct professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas — but a spokeswoman for the university told CNN that’s not true.
“(Parcells) is not now and has never been a member of the Washburn University faculty,” university spokeswoman Michaela Saunders wrote in an email to CNN, adding that at one point, Parcells spoke without receiving pay to two groups of nursing students about the role of a pathologist’s assistant and gave a PowerPoint presentation and answered students’ questions.
Law enforcement officials in other parts of Missouri say Parcells misrepresented himself as a doctor:
Grant Gillett, a deputy sheriff in Andrew County, Missouri, said Parcells told them he was a doctor — a pathologist specifically — when he walked into the funeral home to do the Forrester autopsy.
Dustin Jeffers, who was also a deputy at the time, said Parcells identified himself as a doctor. The Andrew County Sheriff’s Office incident report refers to him as “Pathologist Shawn Parcells” and “Dr. Shawn Parcells Pathologist.”
Parcells says he never told the deputies he was a doctor.
“If they want to think I’m a doctor, that’s their issue,” Parcells told CNN. “People assume stuff all the time. And they may never ask. It’s bad that they’re assuming and that they never asked. If they want to think I’m a physician, then more power to them.”
Officials in another county in Missouri filed a complaint with the Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts when they found out Parcells “conducted (an) autopsy with no pathologist present.” The board reviewed the complaint about the 2011 autopsy and voted to close the case.
Pathologists interviewed by CNN say they’re concerned that a man who has no formal education in pathology is giving testimony in court that could possibly help put innocent people in jail or let guilty people go free.
The CNN report also mentions several specific cases in which Parcells appears to have conducted autopsies on his own without a doctor present, and one bizarre case in which he may have lost a man’s brain.
The autopsy for Michael Brown’s family was allegedly conducted by Dr. Michael Baden. He’s a fairly famous forensic pathologist, generally well-regarded and board certified. But in my own reporting on the ongoing controversy involving Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne, I’ve found Baden to be disturbingly tolerant of the bad actors in his profession. With Hayne, for example, Baden has criticized Hayne’s work in specific cases, but generally defended him to local media outlets like the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. That a famous pathologist like Baden will defend Hayne makes it appear as though Hayne’s critics are just outside agitators and anti-death penalty activists like the Innocence Project — and that the criticisms of his massive workload and less-than-credibile testimony are mere disagreements between professionals, not the product of a man operating well outside the bounds of respectable medical science. Baden’s defenses of Hayne have given cover to state officials who have refused to conduct a systematic review of the thousands of cases in which he has testified.
I suspect that just as Baden’s defenses of Hayne skewed discussion of Hayne’s credibility, his appearance with Parcells at that press conference at least temporarily immunized Parcells from criticism. That’s troubling, because CNN’s report wasn’t exactly breaking news. Parcells’s credibility problems were actually first reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in May of 2013. That article and other allegations then resurfaced when Parcells appeared with Baden at the press conference. Here, for example, is an August 21st post at the Pathology Blawg, written anonymously by a surgical pathologist:
I first wrote about Mr. Parcells in May 2013 after an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussed concerns some Missouri prosecuting attorneys and county coroners had that Mr. Parcells, who only has a Bachelor’s degree, was performing unsupervised forensic autopsies without the appropriate qualifications. Readers can refer to my earlier article or the Post-Dispatch piece for details.
Mr. Parcells contacted me via email a few weeks after my article went out and stated he wanted to “clear the air and present the truth”. I called him back and we spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then he provided me with a written rebuttal to the Post-Dispatch story.
Fast forward to August 2014. After 18 year old Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, St. Louis County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Case performed an autopsy. The family (or its attorney) then requested a second, private autopsy.
I was not the least bit surprised to see the family had asked Dr. Baden to perform the second autopsy, as there are very few forensic pathologists in this day and age who have the visibility and name recognition Dr. Baden has.
But I was very surprised to see Shawn Parcells standing on Dr. Baden’s right during the press conference in which the results of the second autopsy were revealed.
The post notes that by the end of August, Parcells had not only been quoted in numerous media outlets as an authority, he had been erroneously identified as a “forensic pathologist” by CBS, the BBC, the Associated Press, and in at least one article here at The Washington Post. (You can’t be a forensic pathologist without a medical degree.)
On September 1, the Kansas City Star ran a long article on Parcells and his sudden, national notoriety. (Fox 4 in Kansas City also ran a report in August.) The article describes the prior accusations against him, and characterizes his new-found fame as “vindication.” This passage in particular is striking:
Parcells said his work on the Brown case has him thinking, more than ever, about the future. He said he now is pondering going back to school for a master’s degree or perhaps enrolling in medical school.
“I need to get more credentials,” he said. “I love forensics and helping families. I’m OK with going to the next level.”
Think about that for a moment. This has been one of the most volatile, closely-watched stories of the year, and a story in which much of America is still trying to figure out what happened. It is a story with profound implications on race relations and policing — one where the slightest change in a narrative could have cascading effects throughout the country. An autopsy won’t always tell you what happened, but it can certainly help guide the narrative. An unethical medical examiner can do a lot of damage. And yet here was someone quoted authoritatively in newspapers across the country as a forensic pathologist, who was being proclaimed as a medical expert on cable news show after cable news show . . . now admitting he “need[ed] to get more credentials” — and pondering that perhaps he’ll go to medical school . . . someday. And he continued to appear on cable news after those admissions.
How does this happen? I think Baden’s implicit endorsement certainly contributed. The entire field of forensics is also rife with problems. The courts have also done a poor job keeping bad science out of criminal trials, keeping charlatans off the witness stand, and separating the good, science-based methods of analysis from subjective hokum. This is just another manifestation of that problem.
But the media outlets who continued to give Parcells a platform don’t get off the hook. (And that includes CNN itself.) As the Star article points out, one reason why Parcells became a regular on cable news is that he was one of the few people with inside knowledge who was willing to talk about the case. They were giving Ferguson saturation coverage. He was willing to talk. It was a good fit. Never mind that the guy had no business offering himself up as an expert. Cable news is more about stoking biases and inflaming partisans than about informing viewers.
And bias is part of the problem as well. Highly-charged, emotional stories continue to produce some strikingly unskeptical reporting, particularly stories that include a racial/political component. Several conservative websites, for example, picked up on Parcells’s history back in August. But Parcells was hired by the Brown family, so progressive sites like Wonkette belittled the accusations against Parcells, and accused the conservative sites of pushing their own narrative. Both sides were doing the pushing, of course. And it’s worth noting that Gateway Pundit, the same conservative site that correctly warned about Parcells, was also quick to publish erroneous information that advanced its own preferred Ferguson narrative.
A climate like this doesn’t allow any room to be both skeptical of Parcells’s credibility problems and still troubled by the shooting of Michael Brown. As with the Trayvon Martin story, once the lines have been drawn, nuance is dead. You’re either all-in on all of the talking points, or you’re on the other side.
Once a story has been infected with this level of conflict, neither side is much interested in facts or truth. Pointing out that Shawn Parcells may be a fraud is just signalling that you support Darren Wilson. Mocking those who question Parcells’s credibility lets the world know that you’re with the Brown family. Unfortunately, whether or not the guy who assisted on Brown’s autopsy and has since been proffering his opinions on televisions across America actually is a fraud quickly becomes irrelevant.