John Branion Case (The People of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. John M. Branion, JR., Appellant.)


This case review will be looking at the reliability and the unreliability of the evidence provided by the police and discuss how their points of view and statements made people think and reacted to John Branion. Although some of the evidence were circumstantial, by discussing the procedure presented during the trials and looking at the issues to find the truth on the murder of Donna Branion.


A man who murdered his wife to be with his mistress. Back in 1967, a 41-year-old black doctor named John Marshell Branion from Chicago, served as Martin Luther King’s physician was convicted of killing his wife, Donna Branion. He was sentenced to prison for the charge of murder for 20 to 30 years. While his case was under appeal, Branion was bailed and fled to Africa under the asylum. Branion was arrested in 1983 and returned to the United States of America to perform the rest of his prison time in Dixon. Branion served seven years in prison but later died at the age of 64 in August 1990 due to a brain tumour and heart ailment. Despite the interests in this case, Branion was a forgotten man. This is due to the loss of physical evidence and transcript and it was hard for the court to fit in any new evidence for the trials and the case went cold.


The homicide happened on the 22 of December in 1967. Donna Branion was strangled and shot by ‘a .38-caliber automatic pistol’ to death in her apartment. Thirteen injuries were found on the body but only four bullets cases were found near the body. In the same morning, Branion finished work at 1130hrs and went to pick up his son from the nursery. The family had an appointment with Maxine Brown (Donna’s cousin) but she was unavailable for the day. When Branion arrived home at 1157hrs, he saw Donna lying dead on the floor. When the police arrived at the crime scene, Branion made his statement as an intruder invaded his house and murdered his wife. In contrast, the apartment was untouched and organised. Also, there was no sexual contact between the intruder and Donna, only a strangled mark on her neck and gunshot wounds on her body.

A month later, the police were armed with a search warrant and they retrieved a crucial evidence for the case. Three boxes of 9mm ammunition was found in the den closet and each box contained 25 shells, however, 4 shells from one of the boxes was missing but the police stated that it was a .38 caliber ammunition that was found in the closet. The bullets came from Walther PPK, a 9mm weapon not a .38 caliber weapon. Even though it is a 9mm weapon, it can use a .38 caliber ammunition to fire. Branion was a gun collector and he received the gun back in February 1967 as a present. The murder weapon was never found at the crime scene and the gun cabinet was never open and it was not proved to be the weapon to kill Donna.

There were several witnesses who saw or heard what happened on the day. Branion’s neighbour Teresa Kentra ear witnessed loud commotion coming from Branion’s house at 1125hrs. A nursery teacher Joyce Kelly, eye witnessed that Branion had arrived at 1145hrs and took five minutes to put on winter clothes for his son. This is different to Branion’s statement as he arrived ten minutes later. As well as Maxine Brown and other witnesses from the hospital.

Following Donna’s death, Branion expressed that he did not want Donna to be examined as she was already dead due to the lividity in her leg. Although as a physician, Branion did not try to investigate his wife’s condition and assumed instead. However, a pathologist examined Donna’s body and stated that lividity was not present.

During the investigation, it appeared that Branion was in an affair with nurse Shirley Hudson from the hospital for six years. Branion claimed Donna knew about the affair and consented to the relationship and did not attempt to divorced because it would affect her reputation and social status. After the bail, Branion instantly married his mistress.

Furthermore, in 1986 judge Reginald Holzer who oversaw the case was sentenced to jail due to ‘extortion and racketeering’ as he was bribed during the 1968 trial. There were rumours circulating the court that he was to dismiss the case. It was the reason why Branion was able to flee to Africa as he was bailed for $5000. Nelson Brown (brother in law) expressed that the judge demanded $20,000 and was told to give half of the cash in person. A few days later, the judge refused to accept the rest of the money due to a warning from the state’s attorney that if anyone was to reverse the verdict, the person involved would be jailed without queries. The reliability and the issue of the judge affected the case because the judge was blinded by money.

Issues with the case

With this case, there were many complex issues during the investigation. The crime scene occurs to be full of twists as there could have been an ‘alibi’, allowed Branion to carry out his own crime with plentiful of time. Some claimed that he was an innocent man avoiding injustice or a merciless murderer determined to escape the consequences of his plan. On trial, a claim of allegations ‘racial prejudice and possible judicial corrupt’ was made by the defence counsel as there was a recent racial disturbance at the time. A Judge was ‘bribed’ during the trial, the defendant was in an ‘illicit affair’ with a nurse and an ‘alibi’ was used to defend his crime.

There are several issues to critique for the case, but the main issue was the timing for the crime:

There were two possibilities for the conducted time as the defence counsel stated that it would’ve taken forty-eight minutes to commit the crime. In contrast to the prosecution side, Branion had enough time; a total of twenty-seven minutes.

Possibility one: Defence counsel

The defence counsel stated that Branion left the hospital at 1130hrs or perhaps later than that according to an eyewitness from the hospital. Teresa Kentra, ear witnessed loud gunshots coming from Branion’s apartment at 1125hrs. It was impossible as by the time Branion left, his wife was killed because the distance from the hospital to the apartment was 1 ½ mile. He went to pick up his son and spent five minutes to dress the boy, stop by Mrs. Brown office and talked for a few minutes. The estimated time to drive home was two minutes. When he got home, his wife was dead and Branion called for help from the back porch. The police were called at 1157hrs.

This is the time conducted by the defence counsel:

Sequence of the events Time (minutes)
Emergency patient 4 minutes
Nursery school drive 5 minutes
Dress Joby 5minutes
Drive to Maxine 2 minutes
Talk with Maxine 2 minutes
Drive to apartment 2 minutes
Find body, summon neighbour’s, call police 4 minutes
Times to get in and out of car and park (estimated 4 times) 3 minutes
Time for when Donna was strangled 15 minutes
Additional garrotting time 6 minutes
Total Duration 48 minutes

(D’Amato, A, 2010, p. 6)

Possibility two: Prosecution

Branion could have been in the apartment when Donna was killed. However, Branion        denied that there was not enough time to carry out the murder as he had to make two journeys and for the strangled mark to appear it would take at least 15-20 minutes. To prove the theory, detective Michael Boyle and his partner re-enact the driving route taken by the     defendant and the whole journey took “2.8 miles in a minimum of 6 minutes and maximum of 12 minutes”. Theory for prosecution side:

•    Branion left earlier as digital watches were rare,

•    He might stop at his apartment first to carry out his crime then proceed to pick up his son, which explains the strangled mark on Donna’s neck as the pathologist claimed it would take 15 to 30 minutes for the mark to form,

•    He could have gone over the limit when picking his son and parked illegally during the process or disobeying the signs when driving to save some minutes.

The testimony:

During the testimony, the defence counsel’s point supported Branion due to Mrs. Kentra’s testimony. Mrs. Kentra came home from shopping at 1105hrs and heard gunshots twenty minutes later, which adds up to 1125hrs. However, the court altered the timing to at 1130hrs and ignored the witness testimony by making mistakes with the time and tried to determine that Branion left the hospital earlier than stated by 1130hrs. It was reported that the court misprint the word ‘by’ instead of ‘at’. The judges falsified the given facts reducing the reliability of professionalism. The judges continued to ignore evidence retrieved by the police from the witnesses which made the situation apprehensive as the case turned into fiction.

The procedure used for conducting the time was misinterpreted by the judges and the states along with the confidence in their judgment determined Branion left the hospital at 1100hrs as there could have been gaps for the defendant to commit the murder. However, there was no gap as there was only one doctor on duty at the time, Branion. He was branded as having great abilities and risking arrests by speeding just to carry out his crime. The courts’ saying was different to the reference as it was based on opinion rather than facts. In the end, they went with Mrs. Kentra’s testimony to give “An impression of great importance, precision, authority, and accuracy” to close the point. The judges used the ‘law’ effect to change the reader and the jury’s opinions on the case to lift the burden from the previous testimony because their statements on the case conflicted. Also, ‘emotional demonstrations’ were used to persuade the juries convincing them with negativity, made up evidence and theories to change their opinions. The judges continued to ignore given direct evidence, for example, when Donna was killed there was bruises on her neck and the judges stated that the strangled mark continued to form even when she was dead. The states’ pathologist said that “When blood pressure ceases, the body cannot continue to bruise “this statement made the judge denied the saying beforehand. The murder weapon was never found, and the judges misinterpreted the given evidence as “Walther PPK is a 9mm, .38 caliber weapon”, which was not true. The judges failed to present and mention all the evidence provided or read the statements accurately created a misleading atmosphere during the trials. In addition, when Branion had filed notices of appeal for the decision during the investigation, the appeal was rejected as the clerk overlooked the situation and the judges were not professional with their job of handling cases.


In conclusion, the evidence provided by the police was misconceived. It caused controversies because of the wrong interpretation of the evidence and it was based on emotions and opinions rather than facts. The judicial also misapprehend on the facts induced catastrophe on the case. From the stated issues, what should have been done to make this case clear and informing is for the judges to analyse and read the given documents properly before presenting any relevant statements to avoid misconception towards the audiences. The investigators need to do their research and explore the crime scene to find specific evidence for the case and review all the evidence correctly when presenting in court. The issue with this case were mainly on misunderstanding and not listening when presenting testimony and made own assumptions and theories.

The main cause for the case were the judges due to the way they clarified the problems presented and was biased because most of the judges were white against a black man. At the time it was difficult due to the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. assassination which led to nationwide race riots and the murder of the civil rights activist. This could have influenced the judges’ judgment on Branion’s case as they may have thought he was a threat to their country because he used to be King’s personal physician, but it was just inequality and the controversy caused a link to the civil right movements. The professionalism was lacking and most of the statements were due to opinion and fiction evidence rather than direct evidence. However, the truth is till hidden as whether Branion was innocent or not, or who really killed Donna Branion is still a mystery to these days. Furthermore, as time passed by the case went cold even though there was a lot of interests but due to the loss of evidence and transcript, John Branion case turned into a mystery.  (A total of 2,156 words)


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