'Post Mortem' on 'Frontline': Autopsies

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Screengrab from Frontline's

Screengrab from Frontline's "Post Mortem" video, the show examines incompetence among politically connected county coroners in Los Angeles County. (PBS) Photo Credit: PBS/

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REASON TO WATCH: Where some of us go immediately after we die and (hint) it's not heaven.

WHEN/WHERE: Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

That people die is the great common denominator in all our lives, but how we go is the big variable. Broadly speaking, there are natural causes of death and unnatural causes, and it is left to the autopsy to determine which it was. This is an enormously complicated process that varies state to state, and even county to county. That is where this "Frontline"/




investigation, headed by

Lowell Bergman

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, comes in.


- the former "

60 Minutes

" producer whose reporting on the tobacco industry whistle-blower

Jeffrey Wigand

was subject of the 1999 movie "The Insider" - finds that most autopsies are performed by coroners.

As Dr. Marcella Fierro, former Virginia chief medical examiner, tells him, most don't have the skills necessary to perform autopsies, which means many are botched. How many? No one knows, because there is no federal or state-level oversight. "Post Mortem" focuses on two controversial figures - New Orleans coroner Frank Minyard and Dr. Thomas Gill, a California forensic pathologist with a long trail of screw-ups.

MY SAY Dead people don't vote - except maybe in some Chicago wards - which is why autopsy industry practices are so rarely scrutinized. (Minyard, who has been scrutinized, is the one to make this point.) But "Frontline" and Bergman have girded themselves, and moved in for the kill. You'll have to gird yourself as well, particularly when shots of a flaccid foot - toenails in need of a trim - appear on your screen, or a plastic-shrouded body is rudely dumped on a gurney. Establishing cause of death is important for many reasons, as "Frontline" explains, but the system is so fraught with ineptitude that mistakes are inevitable and in some cases egregious. Example - a man in Sonoma County was charged in his wife's apparent suicide after the coroner ruled "textbook suffocation." What's left a little unclear here is how widespread the ineptitude is, but the reported examples suggest that "Frontline" is chiseling away at the tip of an iceberg.

BOTTOM LINE Get past your queasiness. A fascinating and well-reported story.


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