Trial Transcripts

July 30, 1979

Ralph Turbyfill (CID)

MR. MURTAGH:  Your Honor, the Government calls Mr. Ralph Turbyfill.

(Whereupon, RALPH TURITT TURBYFILL was called as a witness, duly sworn, and testified as follows:)

MR. MURTAGH:   Please state your name, sir, and spell it for the reporter?
A  It is Ralph T. Turbyfill, T-u-r-b-y-f-i-l-l.
Q  Where are you employed Mr. Turbyfill, please?
A  I am employed at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Q  In what capacity?
A  I am a Latent Print Examiner.
Q  How long have you been there, sir?
A  I have been there since 3 January, 1978.
Q  Prior to coming to the Arkansas Crime Laboratory, were you ever in the United States Army?
A  Yes, sir.  I am retired military, 21 years.
Q  Okay, in drawing your attention to February 17, 1970, where were you assigned, sir?
A  I was assigned to the U. S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Q  In what capacity?
A  I was a student fingerprint examiner at that time.
Q  Okay.  Did you have occasion to come to Fort Bragg on the morning of February 17, 1970?
A  Yes, sir; I did.
Q  And in connection with that, did you have occasion to proceed to, I believe, the Lee Funeral Home in Fayetteville?
A  I did go to a funeral home in Fayetteville, yes, sir.
Q  What was the purpose of going to that funeral home, sir?
A  To obtain the post-mortem prints of a lady and two children.

MR. MURTAGH:  Your Honor, at this time, the Government would offer and mark Government Exhibit Number 673, 674, 675, 676, 677, 678, 681, and 682 -- the record footprints and fingerprints of Mrs. Colette MacDonald and ask that they be received.

THE COURT:  Very well.

(Government Exhibit Nos. 673, 674, 675, 676, 677, 678, 681, and 682 were marked for identification and received in evidence.)

Q  Mr. Turbyfill, after taking the prints of Mrs. MacDonald, did you have occasion to attempt to fingerprint the children, Kimberly and Kristen MacDonald?
A  Yes, sir; I did.
Q  Would you please tell the court and jury, sir, about those attempts to take those fingerprints?
A  Well basically the children were of such a young age, that their ridge characteristics were not predominant enough, or the fingerprints on the children were not of sufficient density to record a plain impression.  Attempts were futile in obtaining those prints.
Q  If you know, sir, had the bodies been embalmed?
A  Yes, sir; they had been embalmed and processed for burial.
Q  What effect, if any, did that have on your ability to print the bodies?
A  Well, the preparation of the bodies did, in fact, hinder the taking of the inked impressions because the ink would not adhere to the skin surfaces.  We had to work a considerable amount of time just removing the fluid from the outside of the friction ridge area in order to get ink to adhere to them.
Q  Mr. Turbyfill, in view of the difficulty you were having getting those prints, what actions, if any, would you have been required to take in order to ob tain the record prints of Kimberly and Kristen MacDonald?
A  It would have been necessary to extract the outer layer of skin from the fingers, which we did not feel it was necessary in this particular instance.
Q  Mr. Turbyfill, at that time did you have authorization to amputate the skin from the victims?
A  No, sir; we did not.

MR. MURTAGH:  No further questions.  Defense may cross-examine.

C R O S S - E X A M I N A T I O N  3:19 p.m.

Q  Mr. Turbyfill, may I ask on what date you went to that mortuary home?
A  The same date I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Q  Which was February what?
A  17th, sir.
Q  What time of the day or night was it that you went to the mortuary?
A  It was in the afternoon.  I don't recall the exact time, but it was in the early afternoon.
Q  Were you actually a CID agent, or were you just a lab technician or student or a fingerprint examiner at that time?
A  Both, sir.
Q  How long had you been a CID agent?
A  Since January of 1967.
Q  Was this when you were certified for the first time as a CID agent?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  Who was it that sent you to try and obtain fingerprints from Mrs. MacDonald and her children?
A  Hilyard Medlin.
Q  Mr. Medlin?  And who was Mr. Medlin?
A  Mr. Medlin was the senior fingerprint examiner on the scene and I was sent to assist him.
Q  You mean you were both part of the team that came up from Fort Gordon, Georgia, to process the crime scene in this case?
A  That's true.
Q  Were you present when some other CID agent asked Mr. Medlin to take the fingerprints of Mrs. MacDonald and her children?
A  I only went on the instructions of Mr. Medlin.
Q  All right, so you don't know who, if anybody, asked or told him to get those prints?
A  No, sir; I couldn't answer that.
Q  When you say that you were a student fingerprint examiner at that time, what does that mean?
A  That means I was currently assigned to the Crime Laboratory to learn the fingerprint trade and train as an expert in the field.
Q  And how long had you been assigned to the Laboratory at that time?
A  From June 1969 to February 17th.
Q  That's eight months to me.  Was that entire eight-month period spent as a student fingerprint examiner?
A  It was, sir.
Q  And as to how you were being trained, were you going to classes of some sort; were you receiving on-the-job training?
A  During that period of time I was strictly reading the history of fingerprints and also observing the other examiners in their work to learn the trade.
Q  When you say you observed the other examiners, you mean you were observing them at the CID headquarters at Fort Gordon; is that right?
A  At the Crime Laboratory.
Q  You had not gone out to any crime scenes at that point as a student fingerprint examiner; had you?
A  No; I hadn't been to any other crime scenes as a student examiner; no.
Q  As a matter of fact, there are several different classifications of jobs in the fingerprint field, aren't there -- such as a person who perhaps lifts or finds latent fingerprints as opposed to a person who identifies prints or compares prints as opposed to a person who, say, classifies?  Do you recognize those categories?
A  I recognize those categories.
Q  Just for our edification, what does a classifier do?
A  He takes the fingerprints and through numerical sequence and letter sequence he makes a formula from which the fingerprints can be filed and retrieved from the file.
Q  Now, besides a classifier, there is also a person who does comparison work; is that not right?
A  That's a fingerprint examiner who does that.
Q  Examiner.  And describe briefly for me, if you will, the work of the examiner.
A  The basic work of the examiner is to view latent fingerprints which are those chance impressions left at a crime scene or on a piece of evidence with the inked impressions which are taken from victims and/or suspects in an investigation, and he compares those prints after looking through the magnifier and finding an individual characteristic in the latent impression.  Then he goes to the ink impression and attempts to find the same characteristic and does this over and over until he is convinced that it is made by the same individual or same finger.
Q  And the third category is the person who actually goes to the crime scene, dusts various suspicious places or places that may be of evidential value and tries to locate a latent print on a scene?
A  Yes, sir; but these also could be the same person.
Q  I understand, but they are separate branches of the knowledge of the fingerprint trade?
A  Not necessarily, sir.
Q  Well, let me ask you how many fingerprints had you lifted at crime scenes or gone and dusted and lifted at that time?
A  Well, as a military policeman and a criminal investigator, I had lifted several hundred or even thousands.  I don't recall the exact number.
Q  But in your training at the CID Laboratory, had you lifted any fingerprints?
A  Yes, sir; I had.
Q  And was that in connection with crime scene work or was that just work where someone sent them to the laboratory to have them checked?
A  Normally through being sent to the laboratory.
Q  Who was your principal instructor in this work at the laboratory?
A  At the particular time, Charles Arthur Hannah.
Q  And what role did Mr. Hilyard Medlin play in your training, if any?
A  Other than being a senior examiner and checking anything that I might do, he was not my supervisor as such.  However, I was sent by Mr. Hannah to assist him when he was the overall chief of the section at the time.
Q  Now, you say -- Mr. Medlin was a person who would be asked to review your work in the laboratory to see whether it was satisfactory and correctly done.
A  This is true.
Q  Now, before you went to Fort Gordon and became a student fingerprint examiner, you told us you had lifted prints many times on your own; is that right?
A  This is true.
Q  Had you ever destroyed any fingerprints when you lifted them and before you had this training at Fort Gordon?
A  Not that I recall.
Q  And destruction of fingerprints -- that would be a fairly serious loss to find a print at a crime scene and then by the ineptness of the examiner or the latent fingerprint processor destroy them, wouldn't it?

MR. BLACKBURN:  Your Honor, we would OBJECT.


MR. BLACKBURN:  It is outside the scope of direct.

THE COURT:  I sustained the objection.

MR. SEGAL:  All right.

Q  After you became a student fingerprint examiner, that is different from the prior period, while you worked that eight months in the CID laboratory at Fort Gordon -- to the best of your knowledge, did you ever destroy any fingerprints as you were trying to lift them from any object or material sent to you?
A  No.
Q  Now, the particular problem that you faced with the MacDonald family was the fact that at least at the time you went there had the children been involved as well as Mrs. MacDonald?
A  Yes.
Q  You were able to get Mrs. MacDonald's print because on an adult the ridges are deeper and more well developed?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  Because the embalming process doesn't add the additional layer of material that makes it difficult to get an impression; is that correct?
A  It does, and we did take a considerable amount of time removing that in order to get identifiable impressions.
Q  May I ask how long it took -- approximately -- to clean Mrs. MacDonald's fingertips and her fingers for the taking of the impressions?
A  I did not take her fingerprints.
Q  What did you take from her?
A  Her footprints.
Q  Just the footprints.  Do you know who took the fingerprints?
A  Just through the knowledge of the investigation -- Mr. Hawkins.
Q  But not of your own personal knowledge?
A  No.
Q  Had you ever been called upon prior to 17 February 1970 to take fingerprints from a child, say, two -- two and a half -- and five -- five and a half -- or so?
A  In what?
Q  Did you ever make children's fingerprints prior to 17 February?
A  Yes.
Q  All right, on how many occasions had you done that?
A  I had four children of my own, and I practiced on them.
Q  Besides this idea of using your family as guinea pigs, had you ever taken prints in the course of a real investigation?
A  I'm sorry, sir; would you repeat that?
Q  Certainly.  Besides having used your children, had you ever taken children's fingerprints in the course of a real investigation?
A  Never taken them; no.
Q  How about taking fingerprints from a body which had been embalmed -- had you ever attempted that while you were either a military policeman or this student fingerprint examiner?
A  Yes, sir; on several occasions.
Q  Which period of time -- as an examiner or as an MP or as a student fingerprint examiner?
A  At both, sir.
Q  And had you always had the same difficulty in getting fingerprints from an embalmed body as you described here?
A  It's always a process of cleaning up after the mortician in order to get proper identifiable prints.
Q  Now, had anybody impressed upon you the importance of getting the fingerprints of the MacDonald children?
A  Sir, I was aware of the importance.
Q  You mean, based upon what you knew of the crime or the crime scene, you had concluded in your own mind that this was a fairly important matter to undertake; is that right?
A  Yes, sir; I was sent down there for that purpose, and that was my intentions.
Q  Did you ever go back to Mr. Medlin, the more senior examiner, the more experienced examiner, and ask that he perhaps come down and try to take these fingerprints of the MacDonald children?
A  I did not ask him to do that; no, sir.  But I went back and explained to him the difficulty I had and I left the decision up to him.
Q  And which decision was that -- whether to attempt to remove some of the skin?
A  No, sir; in order to attempt, as you said, to obtain the fingerprints.
Q  Oh, I see.  You asked him whether he perhaps wanted to come down and try to do it?
A  I did not ask him to do that.  I left that up to him.  I had told him the difficulty we had at the mortuary with the children, and I indicated that this was as far as I could go.  I've done everything I can to get those fingerprints.  However, I was not able to do so, and this is what I have, and it was the footprints.
Q  And when you told Mr. Medlin that, what did he say, if anything, about the problems that you had described that you were having?
A  I don't recall exactly what he said.
Q  He didn't volunteer that perhaps he ought to go down as a more experienced examiner and try and do this himself, did he?



Q  Did he volunteer to do that?
A  I don't recall.
Q  To your knowledge, did he ever attempt to do that?
A  Not to my knowledge.
Q  You used the word "we" a minute or so ago; I wasn't sure -- was there somebody else trying to get these fingerprints at the mortuary besides yourself on February 17?
A  I was escorted to the mortuary by a CID agent whose name I don't recall.  I say "we" because he afforded me transportation there.
Q  But actually he didn't have any participation in the process you described in trying to get these prints?
A  He may have assisted me in cleaning the feet of Mrs. MacDonald at that time.
Q  And you do not have any idea at this time who that was?
A  No, sir.
Q  I suppose it's saying the obvious, but I will ask you anyway, Mr. Turbyfill: it would have been better, had it not, if the children's fingerprints had been obtained before their bodies had been embalmed?
A  Most certainly.
Q  It would have been possible to complete the assignment at that time without any consideration of removing skin from their fingertips, is that right?
A  That's true.
Q  But nevertheless, even though this unfortunate event apparently happened, where someone let the bodies be embalmed first, there was still this opportuity, you say, to lift prints or get prints from the fingers if you removed the skin?
A  Yes, sir, this is true.
Q  Whom did you report that information to, and what was the response, if any, in regard to that information?
A  I told H. O. Medlin, senior fingerprint examiner on the scene, that I was unable to obtain the fingerprints from the children.  I told him that they had been embalmed, their ridges were not developed sufficiently to get good inked impressions, and I left the decision up to him.
Q  Did he at all talk about the possibility of extracting some skin to do this?
A  He didn't talk to me about it.
Q  Did he say anything at all that you can recall now in response to this report that you made about the problems you were encountering at the mortuary?
A  Yes, he said he didn't feel that it was -- something to the effect that it would be -- their prints wouldn't be necessary and to eliminate all their prints from the crime scene, since they did live in the house, or something to that effect.  I don't recall exactly.
Q  Something to the effect that he didn't think their record prints would be necessary in connection with the investigation of the crime scene?



Q  Is that in essence what he said?
A  He said that their prints were not as important as those of an adult because of the circumstances involved; and that's pure speculation on what he said.  I don't recall the exact words.
Q  In other words, you have a sense that that was said without having any specific memory?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  Would that be fair to say that?
A  That would be fair.
Q  Government's counsel asked you about whether you had permission from any surviving member of the family to, in fact, go ahead and extract skin from the MacDonald children, and you said, no, you did not have their permission.  Do you recall that?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  Did you ever ask Dr. MacDonald or try to ask Dr. MacDonald for that permission and get yourself turned down by him?
A  Today is the first time I have ever seen Mr. MacDonald.
Q  To your knowledge, did H. O. Medlin ask Dr. MacDonald to do this and get himself turned down on that request by Dr. MacDonald?
A  No, sir.
Q  I guess because I don't really understand this process of what would be required to extract the skin, what would you have to do.  I mean, how terrible would that have been?
A  It would depend on your definition of "terrible," sir; but it's done in numerous cases every day across the United States, and in fact across the world, in order to get identifiable impressions of unknown deceased persons primarily.
Q  Many times it is done in connection, as a matter of fact, with serious accidents -- many bodies in a plane crash -- and they have to go to take some skin off their fingers, is that right?
A  This is true, sir.
Q  As a matter of fact, is this fairly common practice to do this with unidentified dead bodies?
A  Of unidentified dead bodies, yes, sir.
Q  Do you know for yourself, Mr. Turbyfill, how that process is actually done?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  Would you describe it for us, please?
A  Yes, sir, the finger is cut along the top from the second joint, being -- the end joint being one and two; and then the -- an incision is made along the side of the nail and another incision around the finger, and the skin is just surgically removed.
Q  A layer of skin, is that right?
A  Yes, sir, or more.
Q  You saw the bodies of these children, didn't you, Mr. Turbyfill?
A  Yes, sir.
Q  You weren't really going to mutilate them beyond the point where they were at that point by taking the skin off their fingers, were you?
A  Not unless as I was so directed.

MR. SEGAL:  I have nothing further.  Thank you very much.

THE COURT:  Redirect?

MR. MURTAGH:  No, Your Honor.

THE COURT:  All right.  Call your next witness.
Webmaster note: 
The original stenographer's misspelling of Hanna was corrected to Hannah in this transcript.