Real Name: Donna Brown Branion
Nicknames: No known nicknames
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Date: December 22, 1967
Details: Donna Branion was the wife of John Branion, a practicing physician in Chicago in the 1960s. On the afternoon of December 22, 1967, he and his son came home to find her murdered by persons unknown. John called the police. Six months later, he found himself on trial for murder. Today, he is serving a twenty-to-thirty year sentence for her murder. However, he claims that he is innocent of the murder.
During the 1960s, John became close to Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1966, he was his personal physician. He even helped with medical services for the Black Panthers. This caused him to have some problems with the Chicago police. He and Donna had been married since 1946 and had two children. They lived in a home in the affluent High Park suburb.
After Donna was found dead, police questioned John about the case. Investigators found four shell casings next to her body; the casings came from a .9 mm gun. He was an avid gun collector, so investigators asked him for any guns that could fire a .9 mm bullet. He gave them a pistol, which was tested and determined to not be the murder weapon. That same evening, at the police station, he gave police his alibi. He stated that at around 11:30AM, he left the clinic where he worked. He drove to his son's nursery school to pick him up. After leaving there, they went to see Donna's cousin, Maxine, and go to lunch. However, she was unable to join them. At that point, he went home and discovered Donna around 12PM.
When questioned, police asked if John would take a polygraph examination. He refused, but agreed to take a nitrate test. This type of test would have determined if he could fire a gun. However, the police did not have the chemicals to conduct the test. That night, he was released without being charged.
However, on January 22, 1968, the police arrived at John's clinic and arrested him for Donna's murder. A few months later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Racial tensions were high in Chicago. At the same time, John's trial began. His jury was composed of eleven whites and one black. The prosecution's case was built on three assertions:
- First, although the murder weapon was never found, the prosecutors claimed that the bullets that killed Donna could have came from a Walther PPK that was part of John's gun collection. Investigators claimed that he denied owning this specific gun. They learned that a friend of John's had bought him the gun as a Christmas present a year before the murder. Donna's brother also testified that John had told him that his Walther PPK had been stolen from his bedside on the day of the murder.
- Next, the prosecutors claimed that the shell casings found next to Donna's body had come from a box of ammunition found in the Branions' closet. Four shells were missing from it.
- Finally, the prosecutors claimed that John had a motive for wanting Donna dead. At the time of her death, the Branions' marriage was in trouble. John had been having an affair with Shirley Hudson, a nurse at his clinic. Prosecutors theorize that he killed Donna so that he wouldn't have to go through the trouble of a divorce. He, however, claims that since Donna knew about the affair, he had no reason to kill her.
The prosecutors theorized that John planned to kill Donna on that specific day. They believe that he came home from the hospital and killed her. He then returned to his son's nursery school to pick him up and went to lunch with Maxine, thus creating himself an alibi.
The defense's case was simple: John's alibi was airtight; it was impossible for him to be in two places at once. His neighbor strengthened his case. She testified that she had heard gunshots at around 11:20AM, while he was still at the clinic. Therefore, it would have been impossible for him to kill Donna. However, an investigator testified that he had driven and timed the route on the morning of the murder. He apparently did, in fact, have enough time to kill her before he picked up his son. The defense, then, challenged the investigator's time table, asking if he had accounted for him having his son with him. The investigator did not, which made the timeline even more difficult.
However, despite the defense evidence, the jury returned with a guilty verdict on May 28, 1968. They had deliberated for eight hours. For three years, John was free on bail while he appealed his verdict. During this time, he married his former mistress, Shirley. In April 1971, his appeal was denied he was ordered to begin serving his twenty to thirty-year-sentence. A few days later, after the Supreme Court declined to hear his case, he fled the country. In 1983, he was arrested in Uganda after Idi Amin's fall and sent back to the United States. He claims that he fled because he was innocent.
Since the 1980s, two investigators, Anthony and Barbara D'Amato, have devoted their time to helping John in his appeals. Anthony is a law professor and Barbara is an author. They are working with Shirley to help show that he is actually innocent. They have reconstructed the events of December 22, 1967, and believe that it is impossible physically for him to have killed Donna. However, since it cannot be proven that she was killed at 11:15AM when the neighbor claims, there is still a chance that he was responsible. His fate lies on the ten minute window of time between when he left his clinic and when he arrived at his son's nursery school to pick him up.
John spend the morning of the murder at his clinic, where he treated fourteen patients. At approximately 11:35AM, he left there and spoke with Leonard Scott, the hospital's administrator. He was next seen ten minutes later at his son's nursery school; a teacher confirmed his whereabouts. In order for him to have murdered Donna, he would have had to quickly leave his clinic, drive home, strangle and shoot her, and then quickly drive to his son's nursery school. He would have had to do all this in approximately ten minutes.
During the trial, investigators claimed that the drive could have been made in just six minutes. However, the D'Amatos claim that the police grossly underestimated the time that this drive would take. They took it several times; each time it took at least eleven minutes.
The D'Amatos also contacted pathologist Douglas Shankin. He reviewed the autopsy reports and believes that Donna was attacked by at least two assailants. He also believes that she was originally assaulted at least thirty minutes before she was actually killed. Shankin found bruises on her body along with a groove in her neck that moved laterally. He believes a cord was used to restrain her but not actually kill her. It takes at least fifteen minutes for the groove on her body to occur. Based on the evidence, he believes that the attack started prior to 11AM.
One of the former prosecutors, however, believes that despite this evidence, John could still be responsible. He believes that John may have not pulled the trigger, but instead hired someone to kill Donna. This would account for the time discrepancies and the possibility of two assailants. However, John and the D'Amatos claim that there is no evidence to suggest that he hired someone to kill her.
John and the D'Amatos have exhausted all judicial appeals in the case. Their only hope is clemency from the governor of Illinois. This is especially important for John because he needs a heart transplant. However, since he is still considered a convicted murderer, he is not allowed to have it take place.
To this day, John maintains his innocence.
Suspects: None known; no alternative suspects have been suggested by John or his defense team.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the December 20, 1989 episode.
Donna was the cousin of entertainer Oscar Brown.
Results: Unresolved. John was subsequently released from prison in August 1990 on clemency from a judge who reviewed his case. Sadly, he passed away a month later due to a tumor and heart ailment; he was sixty-four. If he was indeed innocent, Donna's actual killers were never identified.
However, some evidence not presented in the segment seems to suggest that John may have actually been guilty. No signs of forced entry were found in the apartment, nor was anything stolen. Just one day after the murder, John, his mistress Shirley, and his two children left Chicago and went skiing in Colorado. His statements to police about the day of the murder were also conflicted by witnesses. He claimed that he had picked up his son outside of school that day; however, his son's teacher said that he had come inside to pick him up.
Investigators also discovered that the day of the murder was the first time he had ever asked Maxine to go to lunch with him. It was suspected that she would be his alibi for the murder and that he planned for her to be with him when he found Donna's body. John also claimed that he immediately knew she was dead because he noticed lividity in her legs. However, neighbor Dr. Helen Payne said that was impossible because she examined Donna's body at the same time and noticed no lividity.
Investigators learned that, along with Shirley, John had another girlfriend, Anicetra Souza. They also learned that he had asked Donna for a divorce, but she refused. Following his conviction, he married and divorced Shirley and Anicetra several times.
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