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John branion

John Branion

Real Name: Dr. John Marshall Branion, Jr.
Case: Appeal
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Date: December 22, 1967

Branion map

John's alleged route (clinic at top left, apartment at top right, school at bottom right)


Details: John Branion, a physician from Chicago, Illinois, claims that he was wrongly convicted of the murder of his forty-one-year-old wife, Donna. On December 22, 1967, John, then forty-one, and his four-year-old adoptive son, Joby, arrived home to pick up Donna. The family was planning to go Christmas shopping together. John says that when they returned from Joby’s nursing school, they went into their apartment and called out for Donna. She did not respond, so they started looking for her. The first thing that struck him was that all of the lights were on, and two television sets were on.
John noticed feet sticking out of the utility room when he entered the kitchen. He then discovered Donna’s body on the utility room floor. According to John, she was not breathing, her legs were askew, and her skirt was pushed over her legs. He turned off the light, reached around, grabbed Joby, and ran out of the apartment. After his grim discovery, John called out to a neighbor for help and then called the police. Five months later, he was on trial for his life.
Today, John is serving a twenty-to-thirty-year term in Illinois’ Dixon Correctional Center for Donna’s murder; he could be incarcerated until 2006. It is a crime he swears he did not commit. His daughter, Jan Branion Wethers, thinks that his conviction was extremely unfair and an “atrocity.” She thinks it was a “setup” and that he was railroaded. She is certain that he did not kill Donna.
Dr. Douglas Shanklin, a pathologist, thinks that John is innocent because the evidence shows he could not have physically been there at the time the murder occurred. Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University, thinks that the jury was emotionally caught up in the case and either forgot or did not pay attention to the evidence that overwhelmingly proved that John could not have been the killer.
John says that he could not have murdered Donna. She was the mother of his children and his high school sweetheart. He says that he and Donna had known each other since the age of fourteen. He maintains that he did not kill her.
It is not uncommon for a convicted criminal to stoutly maintain his innocence. But in John’s case, he is not alone. Though some say he is a murderer, others are convinced he was framed. For him, this debate is literally a matter of life and death. After suffering five heart attacks, he desperately needs a heart transplant. But because he is a convicted murderer, the operation he needs to survive has been denied him.
During the mid-1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of equality for all Americans, John marched by his side. In 1966, he was Martin’s personal physician in Chicago. Chicago was a racial battleground during those years. John was often on the front lines. He even went so far as to provide medical services for the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, and other extreme revolutionary groups.
Not surprisingly, John was viewed with hostility by the Chicago police. He says that he has always struggled for equal rights and freedom, hoping that everyone would eventually have equal rights. He says he did it early on with very left-wing groups and plans to do it again when he gets out of prison.
The son of a prominent attorney, John worked in obstetrics at a busy community clinic at Ida Mae Scott Hospital on Chicago's South Side. He lived in an apartment in Chicago’s affluent Hyde Park district. In 1946, he married Donna, who was from an influential family. The couple had two children: Joby and Elizabeth.
After John discovered Donna’s body on December 22, 1967, the Chicago police responded to his call and arrived at his apartment. Near her body, investigators discovered four shell casings from a 9 mm or .38 caliber gun. They assumed that she had been shot four times. An autopsy confirmed that she had been strangled with her iron cord and then shot in the head, neck, and shoulder. Injuries to her hands indicated that she tried to defend herself from the bullets. The autopsy also showed that she died within an hour of being found.
John was an avid gun collector and says that the police asked him for any weapon in his collection capable of firing a 9 mm bullet. He gave them a Luger pistol. Police determined that the gun had not been recently fired and was not the murder weapon. They then asked if he owned a .38 caliber weapon. He gave them a Hi-Standard pistol. That was also ruled out as the murder weapon. The police would later claim that John had denied owning any other gun capable of firing the fatal bullets.
That same evening, at the police station, John gave detectives his alibi. He told them that he left home at 9am that morning, dropped Joby off at his nursery school, and then went to work at his clinic. He left there at 11:30am and drove to Joby’s nursery school to pick him up. He claimed that Joby was out front waiting for him at 11:35am. After leaving the school, they went to see Donna’s cousin, Maxine Brown, to meet her for lunch. When they arrived at her workplace, she told them that she could not join them. John told the police that he then proceeded home. There, at around 11:57am, he discovered Donna’s body.
The detectives asked John if he would take a lie detector test. A friend who was with him said he did not think that was a good idea. John declined to take it but said he would like to take a nitrate test instead. This test would have determined whether he had fired a gun, but the Chicago police could not conduct it. That night, he was released without being charged.
One month passed. Then, on January 22, 1968, the police made an unexpected visit to John’s clinic. There, they arrested him for Donna’s murder. He thinks that the police were under great pressure from the black press at the time. He believes that they saw a “chance” to arrest him, noting that about 85% of murders are committed by family members or close friends. He does not think they thought they would convict him, but they arrested him anyway.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, and riots broke out in Chicago. Racial tensions in the city were at an all-time high. In this polarized atmosphere, John’s trial began on May 15. His jury was composed of eleven whites and one black. The prosecution’s case was primarily built on three assertions.
First, although the murder weapon was never found, they claimed that the bullets that killed Donna could have been fired from a Walther PPK that was part of John’s gun collection, a gun they maintained he had denied owning. According to the prosecutor, Patrick Tuite, one of the detectives testified that after they received the two other guns from John, they returned to him and said, “Do you have a Walther PPK?” And he said, “No, I never had one.”
According to Tuite, it turned out that a Walther PPK had been sold about a year before the murder to a man named William Hooks, who was one of John’s good friends. The police then went to Hooks and asked him where his gun was. He said he had bought that gun for John as a birthday present in February 1967. He had also given John a box and brochure for the Walther PPK, a manufacturer's target (with the gun’s serial number listed), and an extra clip. These items (excluding the gun) were later found in a locked weapons cabinet in John’s apartment.
Later during the trial, Donna’s brother, Nelson Brown, testified that John had told him that his Walther PPK and another gun (a collector’s item worth $1,500) had been stolen from his bedside on the day of the murder. In the confusion that followed, he did not immediately notice the theft. After being confronted about Hooks’ statement, John also told this story to the police. A tipster, however, told detectives that John had thrown a gun into Lake Michigan. A ballistics expert testified that the bullets that killed Donna could have only come from a rare Walther PPK .38 caliber automatic pistol – the same type of gun that John had owned.
The prosecution’s second assertion was that the four shell casings found next to Donna’s body had come from a box of German-made GECO .38 caliber ammunition in a paper bag they had discovered when they searched John’s weapons cabinet. Four shells were missing from the box. They were the same type of ammunition that killed her.
Finally, the prosecution claimed that John had a motive for wanting Donna dead. At the time of her murder, their marriage was in trouble. He had been having an affair with Shirley Hudson, a nurse at his clinic, for six years. He was also having an affair with another woman, Anicetra Souza. Donna knew about the affairs, and he had asked her for a divorce, but she refused. Just one day after the murder, he, Shirley, and his children left Chicago and went skiing in Vail, Colorado.
Prosecutors theorized that John had killed Donna to get out of a bad marriage or get out of their marriage without divorcing. John admits that he had an affair with Shirley. He notes, however, that it was not a “hot-on-the-burner” affair and that nothing was pressing about their relationship. He claims that it was mutually accepted. Shirley never pressed him, and he never thought of leaving Donna. He says it does not make sense for him to suddenly kill her.
The prosecution’s theory was that John had planned to kill Donna that day, although they are not sure why he chose that day. They believe he planned to leave his clinic, go home, “silently” kill her (and when he was unable to kill her silently, he shot her), pick up Joby, pick up Maxine for the lunch date (that was made at the very last minute the night before), have lunch (and thus have an alibi for the period of time involved), and then have either himself or someone else find the body.
The detectives had learned that the day of the murder was the first time John had ever asked Maxine to go to lunch with him. He had called her around 10pm the night before to set it up. She thought it was “a little strange.” Prosecutors believed that he was going to have her go into the apartment with him to find Donna’s body so that he would have a witness to the discovery.
The prosecution also noted that there were no signs of forced entry in the Branions’ apartment, which was equipped with a special burglar-proof lock. It appeared that Donna knew her killer and let them in. She did not appear to have been sexually assaulted. Nothing seemed to have been stolen from the apartment. John had initially told the police that nothing was missing. On the afternoon of Donna’s death, John went to the porch to cry, covering his face with his hands. The detectives noticed that he was peeking through his fingers and watching their every move.
Some of John’s statements were disputed by other witnesses. He initially told the police that he had picked up Joby outside his nursery school; however, the teacher said that John had come inside to pick him up. She distinctly remembered him helping Joby put his jacket on. The teacher also testified that he came in between 11:45 and 11:50am, ten minutes later than what he initially told the police.
John had also told the police he did not check on Donna because he knew she was dead when he noticed lividity in her legs. However, a neighbor, Dr. Helen Payne, said that she examined Donna’s body around the same time and saw no lividity.
John’s defense was simple. He and his attorney were certain his alibi was airtight. They maintained that it was impossible for him to be in two places at once. This alibi was strengthened by the testimony of his next-door neighbor, Theresa Kentra. She said she came home from a shopping trip at 11:05am that morning. About twenty minutes later, sometime between 11:20 and 11:25am, she heard several loud sounds that may have been the fatal gunshots, along with a “commotion” of some sort. According to John, he was still at his clinic at that time.
Theresa testified that about fifteen to twenty minutes later, around 11:50am, John came home and discovered Donna’s body. She says that if John left his clinic at 11:30am, and she heard the shots at 11:20am (which she is sure of), then he could not have killed Donna.
Surprisingly, this testimony would have little impact on the jury. The prosecution pursued its theory that the murder took place after John left the clinic. Detectives testified that they had driven and timed John’s route on the morning of the murder on six different occasions, with varying weather conditions. They went the speed limit, thirty miles per hour (interestingly, according to traffic police, John had been stopped for speeding several times).
Detectives had determined that John did have just enough time to kill Donna before he picked up Joby. They said the 2.8-mile journey from the clinic to the apartment took a minimum of six minutes and a maximum of twelve minutes. They suggested that he may have left the clinic earlier than when he told the police, which would have given him more time. However, in one of the trial’s most dramatic moments, the defense challenged this timetable.
John’s attorney asked one of the detectives how much time he had allowed for John to pick up Joby from the nursery school. The detective said that they had allowed no time for that. Tuite says he remembers feeling a “chill” in the courtroom when this testimony occurred. He notes that you move a lot slower when you have a child in tow than when you are by yourself. He thought that was an effective point.
Another point was whether John would have walked into the apartment with Joby knowing that Donna was dead inside. Tuite says that is a shocking thing to do if John knew that Donna was dead. Tuite thinks that those were the strong points that the defense had going for them.
On May 28, 1968, after deliberating for eight hours, the jury reached its decision. They found John guilty of first-degree murder. He says that when he was found guilty, he felt hollow. He remembers sticking his head up and straightening his shoulders to regain his composure. But he says that he certainly felt hurt when he heard the verdict.
The defense immediately argued that Chicago’s racial riots had prejudiced the trial. John was free on $5,000 bail for three years as he appealed his verdict. During this time, he moved to Wyoming and married Shirley. She says that she loved him then, and she still loves him very much. When he was found guilty, she felt she could not desert him, as some people were beginning to do. She remembers that he was a “walking shell.” She claims that he loved both her and Donna.
At some point, John divorced Shirley and married his other girlfriend, Anicetra. He later divorced her and remarried Shirley. In April 1971, his appeal was denied, and he was ordered to begin serving his twenty-to-thirty-year sentence. In June, a few days after the Supreme Court declined to hear his case, he jumped bail, went to New York City, and left the country.
In 1972, John was arrested in Sudan for carrying forged identity papers. However, by the time U.S. officials were notified, he had vanished again. For over a decade, he lived in Africa. At one point, he worked as the personal physician to Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda. He also helped treat wounded Ugandan soldiers during Operation Entebbe.
After Amin was ousted, John fled to South Africa and Malaysia. In October 1983, Chicago investigators learned that John was about to be expelled from Uganda. On October 12, they apprehended him at Entebbe Airport. He was brought back to Illinois to serve his sentence.
John says an innocent person should be found not guilty in the United States. He says that he had to flee the country because he could not get justice here or anywhere else. He claims that the evidence proves he could not have committed Donna’s murder. Yet he is still in prison.
In 1986, the judge who presided over John’s trial received an eighteen-year sentence for mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering. John’s attorneys appealed his conviction, claiming he was denied a fair trial because the judge received a $10,000 bribe from Donna’s brother, Nelson. Surprisingly, the bribe was allegedly on John’s behalf (some of her family believed he was innocent), and the judge planned to overturn his conviction.
Tuite says that he met with the judge after hearing these rumors. He urged that the law be allowed to “take its course.” John’s attorneys speculated that the judge, unnerved by Tuite’s visit, decided not to overturn the conviction but still kept the bribe money. He then decided to “placate” Nelson by setting a low bail for John after his conviction. However, there was no way to fully corroborate this claim, as Nelson himself had been murdered in 1983; his murder remains unsolved. As a result, this appeal was denied.
Two investigators have since volunteered their services to John’s case: Anthony D’Amato, a prominent law professor from Northwestern University, and his wife, author Barbara D’Amato. They are working with Shirley to document what they consider a shocking miscarriage of justice. Shirley claims that the Chicago police misled prosecutors and that evidence was tampered with at the coroner’s office. She and the D’Amatos also believe that racism “clouded” the trial.
Anthony says he was initially skeptical when Shirley came to them and told them that John was innocent. He says he does not tend to believe people’s statements about things like that. However, Barbara’s investigation of the case proved to Anthony that, no matter what John said, he could not have committed the murder. Anthony says that this is an “impossibility” case. It is not a case of somebody’s word against somebody else’s word.
The D’Amatos believe that John deserves to be released immediately. They claim that by reconstructing the events that took place in the late morning of December 22, 1967, it can be proved that John did not shoot Donna. Anthony says that while Donna was murdered, John was a mile and a half away, treating patients in his clinic. Anthony claims that that is a proven fact.
Donna was last known to be alive at 10:15am, when she talked to her sister on the phone. As it cannot be proved with certainty that the fatal shots were fired at 11:20am, it is possible that Donna was murdered later. John’s guilt or innocence might rest on the ten-minute window of time between 11:35am, when he left his clinic, and the time that he arrived at the nursery school to pick up Joby.
John spent the morning of December 22 at his clinic, where he saw fourteen patients. Patient records indicate that he saw the last one at 11:28am. According to him, at approximately 11:35am, he left the clinic, which was located at 5027 South Prairie Avenue. He stopped outside to talk with Leonard Scott, the hospital’s administrator. He was next seen approximately ten minutes later by a teacher at Joby’s nursery school, which was located at 5480 South Kenwood Avenue.
To have murdered Donna, John would have had to have driven from the clinic to his apartment at 5054 S. Woodlawn Avenue, shot her, and then raced to Joby’s school in less than ten minutes.
During the trial, the police claimed that this drive could be made in as little as six minutes. But according to the D’Amatos, the police grossly underestimated the actual time this drive would take. The D’Amatos traveled the same route several times. It took them at least eleven minutes. Anthony notes that while the police testified that they got it down to as low as six minutes, they also said that sometimes it took them twelve minutes.
Anthony says that is a huge disparity. He wonders how they could have pulled off the six-minute drive. He says they certainly could not have done it at a time when there were other cars on the street, or pedestrians, or snow, or anything else, like the conditions that John had to drive in. Barbara says that while John could have sped home to kill Donna, there is no way he could have avoided other cars on the road or pedestrians crossing the streets. She says he could not have done it in that time frame.
The detectives, however, maintain that the time they measured was accurate. They note that during the years between the murder and the D’Amatos’ test, the area has become more developed. As a result, the roads are more congested, which leads to longer travel times.
Further evidence that John could not have shot Donna came when the D’Amatos consulted pathologist Douglas Shanklin. After examining Donna’s original autopsy reports, he believes he can prove that she was first assaulted at least a half hour before John had even begun to drive home. He also believes that the attack would have required at least two assailants.
Shanklin notes that there were bruises and other marks on her body; the most particular was a groove in her neck. It was a deep groove that began in the anterior neck, moved laterally, and then disappeared behind her neck as though someone was standing behind her with a taut cord. They were not strong enough to strangle Donna, but they were strong enough to hold her and move her body as they wanted her to move and keep her from escaping.
Shanklin says that the cord was released as soon as Donna was shot, but the groove stayed in her neck. He says the groove will not continue to form after death because of the loss of circulation. He claims that it takes at least fifteen minutes for such a groove to form. This means the attack occurred for at least fifteen minutes before she was shot.
Shanklin says that according to the testimony, the latest time for the gunshots was approximately 11:25am, pushing the cord's initial placement around the neck to fifteen minutes earlier. Shanklin believes the crime started around 11am or a few minutes before. He thinks that John is innocent of the crime because at least two people were involved. One held Donna for some time, but according to Shanklin, this assailant could not have shot her at the same time. Shanklin says that there had to be two parties to the shooting.
But even if two assailants killed Donna while John was at work, Tuite believes that John may still be guilty. Tuite says that he always, even at the trial, had doubts about whether John actually pulled the trigger. He says that was the prosecution’s theory. But he has always felt that John was somehow responsible for Donna’s murder.
John says that Tuite deals with facts, and if there are facts that say he did not kill Donna but hired someone else, then Tuite should come forward with them. He says that Tuite is arrogant in saying that he believes in something when there is no evidence to support it. He says that if there was a second party involved, why did they not get the second party and “hang them both”?
Anthony says the jury should have heard the evidence that John had hired someone to kill Donna if there was any. He says that if the prosecution chooses not to present that theory, it is legally irrelevant.
John and the D’Amatos theorize that the killers were two men who intended to rob the apartment. They theorize that the men came to the front door and were let in by Donna. According to Anthony, police photographs of the crime scene indicate that a closet door in the couple’s bedroom was kicked in, and there was blood spattered on the carpet, indicating that a struggle occurred there. The bloodstains led to the utility room, where Donna was found.
Anthony believes that one of the men held Donna with the cord while the other searched the apartment and found John’s gun. Donna was killed when she could not open the safe (because she did not have the combination).
John and the D’Amatos have exhausted all avenues of judicial appeal. His only hope is clemency from the governor of Illinois. But it cannot be delayed much longer, for John needs a heart transplant that will be denied as long as he remains in prison. Shirley says that convicted murderers are not put on the waiting list for heart transplants. She says he has a “double death” sentence: he is already in prison for a crime he did not commit, and now he cannot get the medical care he needs to continue living.
John remains in prison, and for him, time is running out. Is he a murderer or an innocent victim? If his operation is delayed much further, the answer will make little difference.
Governor James Thompson of Illinois received John’s appeal for clemency on October 10, 1989. He has yet to respond. But if new evidence appears, John could be granted a retrial.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the December 20, 1989 episode.
  • It was also featured on “The Trail Went Cold” podcast.
  • It was submitted to the show by Shirley.
  • Barbara wrote “The Doctor, the Murder, the Mystery: The True Story of the Dr. John Branion Murder Case” about this case.
  • Some sources state that Helen heard the sounds between 11:30 and 11:45am. Sources vary on whether the gun used was a 9mm or .38 caliber.
  • John was once indicted as a member of an illegal abortion ring; the charges were dropped, however, because a witness died before she had the chance to testify against him.

Results: Unresolved - On December 20, 1989, John received notice that Governor Thompson had denied his appeal for clemency. On July 3, 1990, John was admitted to the University of Illinois Hospital after doctors discovered he had a brain tumor. On August 7, Governor Thompson commuted his sentence to time served and granted him clemency in consideration of his failing health. He had served seven years in prison. Just one month later, on September 8, he died due to complications from the brain tumor; he was sixty-four.
Joby now works as a sports agent for the NFL. To date, there is still debate over John’s guilt or innocence.