Move over Thamsanqa, Ellen and Hlaudi – the Michael Brown case has an unqualified ‘expert’ all of its own

Move over Thamsanqa, Ellen and Hlaudi – the Michael Brown case has an unqualified ‘expert’ all of its own

As if the Michael Brown killing weren’t already sufficiently problematic, it turns out that one of experts who carried out the autopsy is a publicity-seeking man with no actual credentials in his field. J. BROOKS SPECTOR explains.

In the past year, South Africans have, to put it very plainly, been embarrassed as, one after the other, very prominent people in the public eye have masqueraded as being experts in this or that subject or skill that they have never studied, or that they are the holders of advanced degrees they clearly do not possess. And in one case, that of Ellen Tshabalala, the university she claimed to have a degree from acknowledged on 2 December that they had refused to readmit her to try to complete her courses because of the extraordinarily poor grades she had received the first time she attempted her course work.

Almost exactly a year ago, the entire world could watch live on television when the admittedly psychiatrically unwell Thamsanqa Jantjie, a man apparently given to hallucinations, and with no discernible competence in sign language for the hearing impaired, gave audiences an unremitting stream of digital Babel at the internationally televised memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela. His antics were sufficiently entertaining – although bizarre in their actual content – that comedic versions of his performance (or the real thing) were the hit of talk television around the world for days on end. While it is true that for some of those speeches, Jantjie may have actually added more interesting content than was in the actual speeches he was supposed to interpret into sign language, nevertheless, as a result of the fraud, South Africa became the object of ridicule for weeks as the government and the ANC both twisted and turned acrobatically, all in an effort to find someone to blame for this public disaster.

Then, over the past year, the country was subjected to the slow-motion, metaphorical public hanging of struggle stalwart Pallo Jordan as his habitual use of the academic title ‘Dr’ was eventually removed from his business card in an increasingly sad public spectacle, once it became clear that while he had attended a number of foreign universities, he had actually not graduated from any of them – at either the BA, MA or PhD levels – anywhere. Jordan, at least, has had the personal dignity to stay out of the limelight after his personal debacle had occurred.

Then, of course, there have been the increasingly tawdry public humiliations as the SABC’s council chair, Ellen Tshabalala. Her self-issued epaulets have now effectively been stripped from her couture-dressed shoulders at a hearing by a parliamentary committee, after her increasingly implausible claims thieves stole into her home and purloined her university degrees have now been decisively dismissed by officials from the very university she claimed to have attended. Of course she has, all the while, been defending a man, Hlaudi Motsoeneng who at best only has a high school diploma, despite his exalted rank at the same public broadcaster and his astronomical, self-awarded salary. And we won’t even get into the question of EFF CIC Julius Malema’s grades in school and what they may represent.

A weary South African public could be forgiven for its bewildered looks of resignation when it also became clear recently that the acting head of the national airline did not have any of the degrees that airline’s annual report claimed he possessed, let alone a pilot’s license. Oh well, right about now, the reader may well be exhaling slowly, sighing and quoting Kurt Vonnegut’s famous dictum, “So it goes, so it goes.”

But, if readers want to believe this only happens on South Africa’s public stages, they should be rudely disabused of that sorrowful or smug feeling. In recent days, it has become apparent that the man who was the public face of the forensic evidence in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, was not the highly qualified expert he had told the world he was. At the minimum, one is forced to wonder exactly what that does to the autopsy results, the rest of the police investigation, and the grand jury finding, let alone the unpleasant and unhappy public temper about those events. What happens now would seem to be anybody’s guess, but it is certainly going to provide lawyers with full employment for a long time to come.

Shawn Parcells, the man who “starred” in news video clip after video clip back in August, immediately following Michael Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson policeman, pointing to those silhouette drawings to describe the bullet wounds – speaking ever so knowledgeably about entry wounds and exit wounds and what secrets they revealed, turns out to have more than his share of skeletons in his own closet – not the least of which are that he has no certification as a pathologist, he isn’t a doctor, he probably hasn’t carried out hundreds of autopsies for various local and state governments, and he is not a university faculty member, all as he claimed. In fact, he has never even been to medical school. Oh dear, what a mess that’s going to be once it really gets going.

A short while ago, CNN became increasingly interested in Parcells’ background and started to look more closely at him. Perhaps they were looking for a human-interest angle in the crisis that would be one thing not controversial in the Michael Brown affair. Oops.

The more they dug, the less his public utterances and his professional profile held up to scrutiny and close examination. Describing Parcells’ quirky behaviour, CNN noted that Parcells once handed an attorney a deceased person’s brain during a deposition. As CNN described the scene, “The last thing an attorney might expect to receive at a deposition is a brain, but that’s what the man said he was handing over. A brain. In a bucket.

“Sliding the bucket across the table and opening the lid, the man urged the lawyer, Michael Hodges, to take it. Hodges declined. The deposition continued.

“This might have gone down as just on odd moment in Kansas legal history were it not for the fact that about a year later the defendant, Shawn Parcells, ended up playing an instrumental role in the case of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in August.

“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.”

His adjunct professorship at a St. Louis area university, for example, turned out to be the giving of a few presentations at a university careers day, explaining the joys of being a pathologist’s assistant. And as for medical school? The story on that part of the CV kept shifting in the telling and retelling, but apparently Parcells had intended to attend a Caribbean Islands-based medical school, but the dates for his entrance kept changing in the explaining, with his best excuse being he didn’t want his wife giving birth to their child while he was already at that medical school because he was worried about the quality of the medical care on the island where the school was located.

Then there was the question about his actual training as an autopsy specialist that ended up with his revealing that he attested to the fact that he had carried out hundreds of autopsies by the time he was 17 years old — and that he had fallen fatally in love with such dissections when he was only 12. Maybe this is a good Halloween story, this kind of ghoulish behaviour, but where in the world does one get to carry out hundreds of autopsies while one is still in high school (unless we are speaking of the inevitable frog in biology class)? And what competent civil authority allows this kind of unprofessional conduct to happen?

Reporting their conversation with Parcells in an effort to pin down his scientific training, in a conversation that seems to offer an eerie echo of Ms Tshabalala’s own explanations about her credentials, CNN noted that when they “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.”

Okay, that explains everything, doesn’t it?

Now Michael Brown’s stepfather now has some serious legal troubles in his life ahead, as a result of some intemperate comments at the height of the disturbances calling for the demonstrators to burn down the stores in Ferguson. But Shawn Parcell is going to have a tough time too. One thing seems almost certain, every single legal circumstance that was touched by Parcells’ medical/forensic/pathology adventures are going to be reexamined, exhumed, re-litigated and debated until the cows come home.

And as a result of this stunning revelation, the entire Brown shooting is almost inevitably going to be fought over again and again. Parcells is no Quincy, the famous TV pathologist so wonderfully portrayed by Jack Klugman for all those years, but now that we know Parcells is just another wannabe, he, or rather, his conduct, will be a media subject for a long time to come. And the folks in the St Louis Country’s Coroner’s Office and a bunch of police departments are all going to have some real explaining to do – as is every other jurisdiction that made use of Shawn Parcells’ services over the years. DM

Photo: Shawn Parcells,  a supposed forensic pathologist assistant and medical investigator, explains the trajectory of one of the bullets which struck Michael Brown according to an independent autopsy during a press conference at the Greater St. Marks Family Church in Ferguson, Missouri, USA, 18 August 2014. EPA/ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ

Read more:

  • As National Guard Prepares to Leave Ferguson, Michael Brown’s Stepfather Faces Investigation in the New York Times
  • Is ‘professor’ who helped with Michael Brown autopsy who he says he is? At
  • The saga of Shawn Parcells, the uncredited forensics ‘expert’ in the Michael Brown case at the Washington Post

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