John Marshall Branion Trial: 1968

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John Marshall Branion Trial: 1968

Name of Defendant: John Marshall Branion, Jr.
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Maurice Scott
Chief Prosecutor: Patrick A. Tuite
Judge: Reginald J. Hoizer
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: May 15-28, 1968
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 20-30 years

SIGNIFICANCE: The murder conviction of John Marshall Branion, Jr., a prominent black doctor and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., was achieved without a single scrap of direct proof, demonstrating that, occasionally, circumstantial evidence is the best evidence of all.

The case of John Branion reads like a best-selling mystery thriller. First there was the crime itself, tortuous, full of twists, and ultimately hinging on one issue: Did the defendant's alibi allow him sufficient time to carry out a murder? And then came the trial, riddled with allegations of racial prejudice and possible judicial corruption. Most extraordinary of all was Branion's flight after conviction. Was he, as some claim, an innocent man escaping injustice, or was this rather the tale of a pitiless killer, desperately fleeing the consequences of his actions?

At 11:30 a.m. on December 22, 1967, Dr. John Branion set off in his car from the Ida Mae Scott Hospital on Chicago's South Side. Five minutes laterafter passing his homehe picked up his 4-year-old son from outside a nursery school, then called on a Maxine Brown, who was to have lunch with Branion and his wife. When Brown explained that she was unable to keep the engagement, Branion drove to his apartment at 5054 S. Woodlawn Avenue. His story was that he had arrived at 11:57 a.m. and found his wife Donna lying on the floor of the utility room. She had been shot four times by a. 38-caliber automatic pistol. Branion immediately summoned help.

Police treated Branion's story with palpable disdain; already witnesses were coming forward to dispute his version of events. Another factor was Branion's unpalatable detachment. Just two days after his wife's murder he flew to Vail, Colorado, for a Christmas break.

One month later, armed with a search warrant, police recovered two boxes of Geco brand. 38-caliber ammunition from a closet in Branion's apartment. One full box contained 25 shells. The other box had 4 shells missing, the same number that had killed Donna Branion. Shortly afterwards Branion was arrested for murder.

Imperfect Alibi

According to prosecutor Patrick Tuite, the story that Branion had told police was correct in every respect save one: chronology. Yes, Tuite said, Branion had gone to pick up his son, then on to Maxine Brown's, but first he had sneaked home and shot his wife, before hastening to establish an alibi. This theory was borne out by Joyce Kelly, a teacher at the nursery school. She testified that Branion had entered the school between 11:45 a.m. and 11:50 a.m., some 10 minutes later than he had claimed. Furthermore, she said that Branion's young son was waiting inside the school, again contradicting the defendant's story.

Detective Michael Boyle described for the court a series of tests that he and another officer had performed, driving the route allegedly taken by Branion. They had covered the 2.8-mile journey in a minimum of six minutes and a maximum of 12 minutes. Time enough, said the prosecution, for Branion to have committed the murder and then gone to pick up his son. Oddly enough, this assertion was never seriously challenged by the defense.

A ballistics expert, Officer Burt Nielsen, stated that the bullets which had killed Donna Branion could only have been fired from a Walther PPK. 38-caliber automatic pistol, a very rare make. The prosecution pointed out that Branion, an avid gun collector, had at first denied ever having owned a Walther, until it was shown that he had received just such a gun in February 1967 as a belated birthday present. This had prompted Branion to change his original statement in which he claimed that nothing was stolen from his apartment; now he said that the Walther must have been taken by the intruders who killed his wife. The murder weapon was never found.

Much was made of Branion's peculiar indifference toward the discovery of his wife's body. He admitted not bothering to examine it because he could tell from the lividity that she was dead. (Lividity is the tendency of blood to sink to the lowest extremities in a corpse.) But Dr. Helen Payne testified that when she examined the body at 12:20 p.m. lividity was not present. Branion again altered his story, saying that he had really meant 'cyanosis,' a blue discoloration of the skin caused by dc-oxygenated blood.

Illicit Love

To establish motive, the state argued that Branion was conducting an affair with nurse Shirley Hudson and wanted to be rid of his wife. Questioning of Maxine Brown, who had allegedly overheard a compromising conversation between Hudson and Branion one day after the murder, produced the following, seemingly fruitless, exchange:

Prosecutor: Who is Shirley Hudson?

Defense Counsel: Objection.

The Court: Sustained.

Prosecutor: Do you know what, if any, relationship Shirley Hudson bore to the defendant?

Defense Counsel: Objection.

The Court: Sustained.

And so it went: an endless string of improper questions, countered by an equal number of objections, all of which were upheld by the court. But the damage was immense. By such tactics the prosecution was able to establish the likelihood of an illicit relationship, if not the certainty.

Declining to testify on his own behalf, Branion remained mute while the jury convicted him of murder and Judge Reginald Holzer passed sentence of 20-30 years imprisonment. Defense counsel Maurice Scott immediately argued that the trial had been prejudiced by Chicago's recent racial disturbances and vowed to appeal.

Released by Judge Holzer on an unusually low bond of $5,000, Branion took his case to the Illinois Supreme Court. On December 3, 1970, while conceding that the evidence against Branion was wholly circumstantial, the court held that it was sufficient to uphold the guilty verdict, stating:

To support a conviction based on circumstantial evidence it is essential that facts proved be not only consistent with defendant's guilt, but they must be inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence; but the People are not required to establish guilt beyond any possible doubt.

On the Run

In 1971, Branion, sensing that the end was nigh, fled the country. After an amazing jaunt across Africa he found asylum in Uganda, occasionally acting as personal physician to Idi Amin, that country's dictator. Upon Amin's ouster, Branion was arrested and returned to the United States in October 1983.

Yet another stunning twist came in 1986, when Judge Reginald Holzer received an 18-year jail sentence for extortion and racketeering. Branion's lawyers seized this opportunity to charge that Holzer had received a $10,000 bribe during the 1968 trial, paid by the defendant's brother-in-law, Nelson Brown. Prosecutor Patrick Tuite admitted that he had heard rumors of Holzer's intention to overturn Branion's conviction and had gone to see him, urging that the law be allowed to take its course. The speculation is that Holzer, unnerved by Tuite's visit, swindled those who allegedly paid the bribe, then sought to placate them by substituting a ludicrously low bail of $5,000, allowing Branion to escape. Because there was no way of corroborating the storyBrown had himself been stabbed to death in 1983this final effort to overturn Branion's conviction met with the same fate as its predecessors.

After serving just seven years of his sentence, Branion was released from prison in August 1990 on health grounds. One month later, at age 64, he died of a brain tumor and heart ailment.

Branion's conviction stunned Chicago's black community. Initial outrage over a perceived lack of police effort in apprehending the killer quickly turned to fury when the verdict of the jury was announced.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Jet. (October 22, 1990): 18.

Sanders, Charles L. "A Man On The Run." Ebony (July 1984): 112-119.

Tuohy, James and Rob Warden. Greylord. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.

265 North Eastern Reporter, 2nd Series. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing. 1971.