Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 6, Episode 12 - Death Investigations - full transcript

[HBO] HD. Main story: America's system for conducting death investigations is a mess; plus, a look at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -


Welcome to Last Week Tonight.

I'm John Oliver.
Thank you for joining us.

A quick recap of the week,
which has been busy in the U.S.,

from the advancement of more
anti-abortion bills

to Treasury Secretary and
thirst-trap Steve Mnuchin

Trump's tax returns.

It has been very depressing
here in America, so instead,

let's start overseas, with
the Eurovision Song Contest.

Basically, "America's Got Talent",
minus the "America"

and, frequently, the talent.

Last night's finale was the usual
festival of campy pop music,

featuring a Russian serenading
a rainy window,

an Azerbaijani contestant having
robotic heart surgery

and an Australian dressed
as Elsa from Frozen on a stick.

The most striking performance
came from the Icelandic entry,

who went
a very different way.

That's lovely. Finally we have
an answer to the question:

what if you'd sprinkled fairy dust
onto a Criss Angel show?

That was the magnificent Icelandic
band "Hatari".

I'll let them describe
what they're about.

We are Icelandic
award-winning anticapitalist

techno performance BDSM
band Hatari.

I'm so glad you cleared
that up, guys.

I'd assumed that you were
a Norwegian award-nominated

proto-fascist industrial BBW
MILF DP band,

but apparently I was
sorely mistaken on that.

Hatari got attention by ignoring
Eurovision's history to be apolitical.

The lead singer described
qualifying for the contest

as bringing them "one step nearer,
to our plan to destroy capitalism."

If you think: "What qualifies
them to discuss geopolitics?"

It's actually in their blood.

This young man here,
apparently is the son

of the Icelandic ambassador
to the U.K.

Do you have anything to say?

You may think
that's the most embarrassing child

of a prominent political figure,
but let me remind you

the continued existence
of Meghan McCain.

No! I bet her husband's
gonna get so mad at me now!

What is he gonna tweet and delete?
I can't wait to find out!

I would love to spend
all night talking about Hatari,

but we have
to move on to China,

home of the world's most famous
big expensive wall that didn't work,

for now.

Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion
worth of Chinese goods,

marking another escalation in
a seemingly intractable trade war.

U.S. farmers and manufacturers
are starting to suffer,

Trump insists everything's fine.

Our farmers will be very happy,
our manufacturers will be happy

and our government
is very happy

because we're taking in tens
of billions of dollars.

It's working out very well.

It is alarming whenever Trump
claims something's going well.

If you ever hear him say: "We love
this building! So little fire!"

get the fuck out of there,
it is about to burn to the ground.

Trump's line there about
"tens of billions of dollars" reflects

his longstanding belief that
China is paying tariffs to the U.S.A.

Which, for the millionth time,
is not how tariffs work.

China doesn't pay our tariffs,

American importers do
when they receive Chinese goods

and they usually pass that
cost along to U.S. consumers.

Something that chief economic
adviser, Larry Kudlow,

reluctantly admitted
to when pressed on it.

It's U.S. businesses and
consumers who pay, correct?

Yes, to some extent,
I don't disagree with that.

"I don't disagree with that?"
That's a pretty laid-back way

to admit that Trump's entire
argument is bullshit.

Saying China pays tariffs

is like saying the cashier at
Subway pays for your sandwich.

No, you pay for it! And
you actually pay three times:

once at the counter, again
when you're sadly eating it

and finally,
two and a half hours later.

You pay three times.

It's an open question whether
Trump knows this, and doesn't care

or whether Trump doesn't know
this, and it's the second one.

When one reporter asked officials

whether Trump truly thinks
that China pays U.S. tariffs,

the consensus was: "yes,
that's what he actually believes."

Which is pathetic, because
these tariffs and this trade war,

are now
having real consequences.

While Trump said that
"our farmers will be very happy",

when reporters went to talk to
some, they found a different story.

What is the situation
for you and your operation?

Two words. It sucks.

Yeah, and "it sucks"
is not usually what you say

when you're very happy, unless
is 1901, you are Hubert Cecil Booth

and you just invented the world's
first power vacuum cleaner.

"I'm so happy!
It sucks so much!"

"I'm gonna be rich! By George,
it sucks! It sucks so hard."

The worrying thing is that
clearly nothing's going to change.

Trump is 72 years old,
if he hasn't shown any interest

in learning how trade works,
he's not about to start learning now,

leaving us in the ridiculous position
where the current president of the US

may have a less-informed
take on global economics

than a leather-wrapped Icelandic
dystopian techno band.

And now, this.

A Few More
Moments of Hatari.

It's not easy to work
towards ending capitalism.

The appetite of fascism
is a hopeless cry

for the remnants
of the nation-state,

which is, of course,
doomed to fail.

If you're full of warm and joyful
feelings, of color and spritely energy.

My celebrity crush this year
is Theresa May.

Please contact me
at [email protected].

We address our statement
to Benjamin Netanyahu.

We, members of Hatari,
hereby challenge you

to a friendly match of traditional
Icelandic trouser grip-wrestling.

In a contest such as
the Eurovision,

it's important to invest
in a younger generation.

It's also true when you're
toppling a socio-economic world order.

All the children that support us,
they see our cause and our message.

We love children and smiling and
dancing among friends and family.

Moving on. Our main story
tonight concerns death:

one of the few things
in life you can't avoid,

along with taxes and plugging in
a flash drive upside down on first try.

Statistically, it can't be done.

This story is about the people
who investigate deaths.

If you're thinking:
"I don't want to see that on TV",

are you completely sure?

Death investigators aren't just
characters on some popular shows,

like "Law & Order: SVU",
"CSI" and "NCIS",

every once in a while, they
even get a show of their own.

Think you can get away with
murder? Over her dead bodies.

ABC's "Body of Proof".

Smart is better when it's partnered
with sexy, "Rizzoli & Isles."

I'm New York City's
top medical examiner.

It's like I've been doing this
forever. Well, actually, I have.


Yes, "Forever". Which is also
precisely the wrong answer

to the question: "how long
was that show on television?"

But it is not just TV death
investigators who are very busy.

In real life, every year, about
2.8 million Americans die.

A physician is the one who writes

what happened to them
on the death certificate.

If someone dies under
unnatural circumstances,

their body may be sent
for further examination

and possibly
a forensic autopsy.

That's what happens to around
half a million bodies each year.

Those investigations
are incredibly important.

A death certificate
isn't like a degree from USC,

it actually means something.

Autopsy results
have huge implications,

there's the obvious one like
determining whether someone

has been killed
and if so, how.

They help identify new
trends in substance abuse,

warn us about defective products
and they can sound the alarm

when they spot the spread
of an infectious disease.

People in this field
take that responsibility seriously.

We're on the front line
of what people are dying of.

We see it every day and we
notice a trend pretty quickly,

so we like to get the information
out as soon as possible

so that others are aware, maybe
prevent a few deaths if we can.

An important point about the
public-health role of her office,

only undercut by the skeleton
of Santa Claus behind her,

who it seems for some reason
died with his dick in a box.

While it would be great if those
autopsies were always performed

and overseen responsibly, as
local news regularly shows us,

that is by no means the case.

Tucked away in a storage
unit in Pensacola,

authorities found more
than a hundred human organs.

The renter of the unit, former
medical examiner Michael Berkland.

The family of an elderly murder
victim is not happy.

They found out that two,
now former, GBI employees

took a picture holding the dismembered
head of their loved one.

We can't show you that
picture because it is too graphic.

Shelly took the Marine's brain
home with him to Virginia,

and letting his kids play with it
while his wife took pictures.

That's an appalling story for
a number of reasons, but most of all:

why did his wife
take pictures?

What was she going to do with
them? Post them on Facebook?

With what caption?

Jackson and baby Timothy
handling a brain.

Daddy is always bringing home
a new organ for them to molest.

Hashtag #growingboys,
hashtag #godisgood".

While those are just individual
examples of what can go wrong,

the problems are broader,
with reports finding

"many death-investigation
facilities are antiquated"

"and in need of repair
or replacement."

Given how important
those facilities are,

it is shocking how often
they're funded as an afterthought.

The U.S. government provides
virtually no funding

to either medical examiners
or coroners.

One of their grants was for
one office to get a new refrigerator

because their current refrigerator
was closed by a belt.

That's how poorly funded.
I, myself, have worked in an office

where it was a converted garage
with a single light

dangling from the roof,

a single light bulb
over my autopsy table.

That is, quite frankly,
too spooky.

If I've learned anything
from horror movies,

when you see a room
with one dead person,

one alive person
and one light bulb,

that's a room
that's about to contain

two dead people
and one light bulb.

Learn from movies.
So tonight,

let's talk about
our death investigation system.

How it works, why it's such a
mess, and what we can do about it.

You should know that, depending
on where you live, or indeed, die,

you could wind up funneled
into one of two systems.

Two-thirds of the country's
death investigation offices

are overseen by coroners, while
medical examiners oversee the rest.

You might think that those
are the same thing

and they do have
the same job.

They decide whether to have
someone conduct an autopsy

and then using it to rule on
the cause of death.

There is a key difference
between them,

when it comes
to qualifications, in particular.

Medical examiners are required
to be doctors,

coroners are usually
not medically trained at all.

In Georgia, out of 154 coroners
only one is a physician,

while the others include
grocers, farmers, handymen

and hairdressers,
which is a little bit weird.

No disrespect to hairdressers,
but some have been known

to drop the ball
from time to time.

It has happened,
mistakes have been made.

If you are wondering how grocers
and hairdressers became coroners,

In Georgia, as in much of the country,
coroners are elected.

And the bar to run
for the job can be very low.

In Arkansas,
there is barely a bar at all.

You can run and be elected
with zero medical knowledge,

anatomical training
or official certification.

You have to be 18 years or older.
Cannot be a felon. You're electable.

Holy shit. Look to your right.
Now look to your left.

Both these people
are eligible to be,

and indeed are,
coroners in Arkansas.

Having elected officials
with no medical training

signing off on death certificates,
is weird enough,

before you factor in the potential
for huge conflicts of interest.

In some jurisdictions, the coroner
is also the county sheriff

and that has led
to serious problems.

In California, one doctor quit,
claiming the coroner-slash-sheriff

had interfered in cases where
police had used deadly force.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, renowned
for his expertise on concussions

accused San Joaquin County
sheriff and coroner Steve Moore

of trying to change autopsy findings
in shootings involving his officers.

That is not good. It is hard
to trust a death certificate

in a death involving
police officers,

when the guy signing it have an active
interest in police not being culpable.

Also when the guy signing it

looks like Marlon Bundo made
a wish to become a real boy

and it backfired horribly.

That sheriff denied
doing anything improper,

but they've taken coroner
duties away from the sheriff's office.

Which is good, because you can't
have any suggestion of coziness

between death investigators
and law enforcement.

In New Orleans, their coroner
for decades was Frank Minyard,

who was criticized for finding that
people who died in police custody

had suffered accidents,

and when he was confronted over
one case, he got pretty annoyed.

When the body of Henry Glover
was found in this burnedout car,

evidence pointed to police officers
being responsible for his death.

But Coroner Minyard did not
classify it as a homicide

and so there was
no criminal investigation.

A burned-up body
inside a burned-out car?

- Behind a police station?
- Okay, look at it that way.

Now, look at it from
my point of view.

We can't say.

There's no way I can say
that that is a homicide.

There's no way of telling
how, why this man died.

Except, there is a way
to tell how that man died:

a medical investigation
into his death,

which happens to be
your exact job.

Like hearing a clown say:
"There is no way to twist"

"this balloon into
a shape of a dog or hat."

Really, clown? If that's true,
what exactly is the use of you,

other than psychologically damaging
children for life?

That case was later re-classified
as a homicide, because it was.

It is no wonder

that medical organizations have
been calling for the coroner system

to be abolished since 1857,

arguing that the person appointed
should be a doctor in medicine,

the medical examiner system.

Instinctively does sound better!
Even this system is not perfect.

The place where staff
posed for photos with a severed head?

That was
a medical examiner's office.

The guy who took the brain
for his kids to play with?

He was and still is
a medical examiner.

And that's not even
mentioning the medical examiner

at the center of the most fantastic
"20/20" interview of all time.

The other charge is that your dog
ate one of the body's spleen

and then he also
ate a kidney, is that true?

Dr. Harlan?
You don't want to respond?

You can deny this if it's not true.

It's never happened to me
in an "ABC News" interview,

but Charles Harlan
fell completely silent.

He didn't get up and leave.
He just simply stopped talking.

What are you doing?
You're still on camera!

I know he's not used
to dealing with the living,

but playing dead
is not a legitimate move here.

Good medical examiners
can be hard to find,

it's not a job
many doctors want.

You've seen the problems of
underinvestment in the facilities,

state-funded medical examiners
make around half the salary

they could
in other medical specialties,

with little potential for tips
from satisfied clients.

That is just if you're happy
with any doctor in the job.

The best-case scenario

is to have board-certified forensic
pathologists running these offices.

But that is not going
to happen anytime soon,

there is a dire
shortage of those.

There are only 500 of them
practicing in the whole US,

which is less than half
the recommended number.

When you combine this shortage
with the current opioid crisis

causing an increase in bodies
that need examining,

you get a system pushed
well past its breaking point.

In New Jersey a few years back,
their acting state medical examiner

resigned in frustration, citing staff
shortages as one of the reasons.

I felt as I walked in the door
they didn't have enough personnel

to handle the load.

You don't want to come
to a family and say:

"I'm sorry ma'am.
I'm sorry, Mrs. Smith."

"We couldn't do the investigation
'cause we don't have the resources."

Right. He wanted to serve people
well. But he couldn't.

Things have not got much better
in New Jersey since.

If you find yourself dying there, write
whatever is killing you on a Post-It

and stick it to your chest.

You'd be doing their overstretched
investigators a solid. Thanks.

The resources crunch is so bad
that some offices wind up

outsourcing work
to private contractors.

This is where this story
gets incredible.

Let me introduce you to one
terrible example of this.

In Missouri and Kansas, a number
of coroners offices wound up hiring

a company belonging to this man,
Shawn Parcells, to perform autopsies.

Why wouldn't they?

He's a guy whose actual license
plate says "Autopsy".

That's reassuring, isn't it?
They don't just hand that out

to anyone with a valid,
government-issued photo ID and $45.


Unfortunately, though, there
were a few problems with Parcells.

He's not a forensic pathologist.
He's not any kind of doctor at all.

While he maintains
that his firm employs doctors,

he's been accused of performing
illegal autopsies himself.

He has left a long trail
of problems behind him.

Parcells has been accused of
botching a murder investigation.

We cannot use any evidence found
from the autopsy in a court of law.

And lying about his credentials.
Did you think he was a doctor?

- Yes.
- Why?

Because he said so.

I tell people all the time:
"I almost became a neurosurgeon."

Doesn't mean that I'm a doctor,
that I was in medical school.

I really did almost do that.


You almost became
a neurosurgeon but didn't,

which puts you in a special
category of literally everyone

except fucking neurosurgeons.

I can also claim I almost
became a neurosurgeon

which is why my parents
are almost proud of me.

If you are wondering why
a county coroner office

would hire Shawn's company,
many of them are strapped for cash

and one of them explained:
"It was the most affordable."

Shawn's low rates become
understandable when you see

one of his autopsy facilities,

which he was comfortable
letting cameras in.

Parcells gave us a tour. He's proud
of this back-alley autopsy lab.

So this is the autopsy suite.
And obviously bathroom.

There's carpet on the floor, what
appears to be a lack of organization

and this is how containers
are labeled and stored.

I don't know where...
She's over there, so just...

We agreed to not record
a woman's body

that was unwrapped
and unrefrigerated in the corner.

The freezers.

And it couldn't be, because
there's no walk-in refrigerator

inside this makeshift morgue.

Only two small freezers that could
be purchased at any big box store.

What jumps out at me the most
about Shawn's tricked out death-hutch

isn't the single Glade PlugIn

or the name "Shawn"
surrounded by green hearts

or the Tupperware containers of
baked ziti and-or human remains

or the presence of a spray bottle
of Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Cleaner

or the sick "Lab Of Nerds" poster
or the sicker Albert Einstein poster

opposite the room-temperature
cadaver or the desktop skull

or the unfolded beach towel
or even the wall-to-wall carpeting.

No. Even within a grifter's
back-alley autopsy shanty,

the most objectionable item
on display there

is somehow
that enormous soda.

What are you doing with that
thing, you fucking monster?

This repurposed ramen container
could and I have to assume does

contain blood, phlegm and
embalming fluid

and yet it still would still be less
nauseating than the possibility

he's drinking a 40 of Squirt.

That's me speaking personally,
as well as correctly and objectively.

There is even more here.
Parcells has also gotten in trouble

for autopsies he's performed
through his private businesses,

for which he often failed
to produce any sort of report.

All of which has led to him
facing pending criminal charges

of theft
and desecration of bodies.

All of this has clearly given him
a bad name in the business.

Rather than stopping
what he was doing,

Shawn Parcells
stopped being "Shawn Parcells"

and instead, started working under
the name "Professor Lynn".

When that reporter asked him why,
his answer wasn't great.

Lynn was used as a nickname.
Honestly, I'm being honest here,

because people would
butcher my last name.

- "Parcells" isn't that difficult.
- It's not. It really isn't.

I've had people say
"Percellies", "Parcellies"...

When you're emailing, you don't
have to pronounce it out loud.

Why are you signing things
"Professor Lynn"?

It's my middle name.
I have that right.

First: that's clearly horseshit.
And second, the only person

who should be going by his
middle name is Hugh Grant,

whose middle name, and
this is true, is Mungo.

His actual name
is Hugh Mungo Grant

and for some reason
he chooses not to publicize that.

Like an idiot. You're looking
a gift horse in the mouth, Mungo.

As funny as Parcells is, and he is
distractingly, inconveniently funny,

he's botched multiple
death investigations.

The only reason he had
the opportunity to do so

was because of the Big-Gulp-sized
holes in death-investigation system.

It is not just dramatic consequences
of investigations being compromised

or epidemics
potentially being missed.

Even ordinary delays in processing
death certificates

can have serious practical
consequences for families.

You'd want a death certificate
within days or weeks.

But it can take
much longer than that.

Listen to one woman whose
husband had passed away suddenly,

and waited
six months for a cause of death.

They're not thinking of these
families that are waiting in agony,

to know what happened,
it's inexcusable.

The holdup
left Sara struggling financially.

Without the death certificate,
she couldn't collect life insurance.

I couldn't pay for the mortgage.
I had to rely on donations.

To you, it's much more
than just a piece of paper.

Yes, it meant moving on.

Awful. You shouldn't have to wait
that long for something important.

It's not like making someone
wait eight years to find out

who wins
the game of thrones.

Don't tell me who it is yet,
I haven't seen it.

Based on the season so far,
I'm guessing it was Ed Sheeran.

They really know how to deliver
for the fans. Don't they?

What should happen now?

In an ideal world,
no one would die.

I'm certainly never going to and
I don't think you should either.

In a slightly less ideal world, we
would phase out coroner's offices

and replace them
with medical examiners,

the thing that experts have
been arguing for since the 1800's.

We have autopsies performed by
board-certified forensic pathologists.

Not going to happen until we
address the huge personnel shortage.

You can't hire forensic
pathologists who don't exist.

We need to find ways to incentivize
med-school students,

paying them more and by funding
the offices they'll be working in.

It wouldn't even
cost that much.

One study recommended bringing
public spending on these offices

up to a minimum of just
$3.75 per person per year.

Less than the amount of money
that we annually donate

to our couch cushions.

This issue is tempting to ignore.
It combines the two things

that people hate thinking
about the most:

death and municipal funding.

Nobody wants to contemplate
their death or the death of loved ones.

Think about this
in a more abstract way.

Think about what you would
want for a beloved entertainer.

Not me, obviously,
that's the worst possible example.

Think of Beyonc?, or Ted Danson,
or Glenn Close.

Do you want Glenn Close to wind
up in Parcells' autopsy dungeon

or having her spleen being
eaten by a dog?

Of course not!
She's a seven-time Oscar nominee

and she doesn't want that to
happen either, do you, Glenn?

No, I don't want
my spleen eaten by a dog.

Show my spleen
some respect.

That's right, Glenn!
Put some respect on her spleen!

Put some respect
on that woman's spleen.

Glenn Close deserves three things:
two Oscars

and not to have
her spleen eaten by a dog.

That's the least
America can do for her.

We can and should improve our
death-investigation system,

for Glenn Close
and for every other person.

Not just because it's important,
which it is.

Not just because it could save
lives, which it could.

Because all it will cost us
is roughly the same price

as an extra-large Big Gulp.

And now this.

A Message About The Importance
Of Death Investigations

From Tracy Morgan.

This is Tracy Morgan. Can I talk about
something for a minute?

We all know that one day
we all won't be on this planet.

We're gonna die. I don't
know how I'm gonna die

but I know it's not gonna be
by a Walmart.

When my time does come,
I don't want to end up

in a basement dungeon
on some dude's autopsy table,

standing over me with a knife,
a dull spoon, an ice cream scooper.

I don't want these things.

Please don't let someone take
my brain home to play with.

That's not a good thing.
And I love this woman.

I cannot have some dog out here
eating Glenn Close's spleen.

Glenn Close is an American treasure.
I love you in "Albert Nobbs".

That's why we need you here.

All it's gonna take is $3.75
to save Glenn Close's spleen.

Right? Don't you want to save her
spleen? $3.75. Who don't got that?

$3.75. It's all it takes.

Y'all can pack this shit up
and get out my house.

That's our show!

We're off next week, back on
June 2nd! See you then! Good night!