The Husband Did It: Donna Branion
Donna was shot dead and her husband was convicted of her murder. He claimed innocence until his death.
This writing is part of a continuing series on cold cases linked to domestic violence. Cases are taken from Unsolved Mysteries.
The case of Donna Branion is on season 2, episode 12 of Unsolved Mysteries.
For legal purposes, the husband in this case was charged with crimes against his spouse. I have no physical evidence of domestic violence, only circumstantial evidence, the narrative given to us by those involved, and extensive knowledge on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I have tried to make it clear when giving my opinion versus stating objective facts of the case.
The narrative according to Robert Stack:
On December 22, 1967, Dr. John Branion, and his son Joby, arrived at home to pick up wife and mother Donna Branion.
Joby and I returned from nursery school and went into the house. And the first thing that struck me was all the lights were on and two television sets were on. And I called out to Donna. I got no answer. And then when I got to the kitchen, I looked to the right and I could see feet — her legs really sticking out of the utility room. And she was dead. She wasn’t breathing. Her legs were askew and her skirt was kind of rickered [sic] up over her legs. I switched off the light and reached around and grabbed Joby and ran out the back of the house. — John
After he found his wife, John immediately called the police. Five months later they arrested and charged him with her murder. At the time of the episode, John was serving a 20 to 30 year prison term for first-degree murder. He claims he is innocent.
I think he’s innocent because the evidence shows that he could not have physically been there at the time these events were going on. — Dr. Douglas R. Shanklin, pathologist
I think the jury was emotionally caught up in the case and just forgot or didn’t pay attention to the evidence that overwhelmingly proved that John couldn’t have been the killer. — Anthony D’Amato, Prof. of Law, Northwestern University
I couldn’t murder the mother of my children. I couldn’t murder my high school sweetheart. Donna and I had known each other since the age of 14. I didn’t murder her. — John
In 1946, John and Donna got married and had two children together. During the mid-60’s, John marched by the side of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was his personal physician in 1966. John provided medical services to the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, and other revolutionary groups. Chicago police disdained John.
Chicago police were the ones who responded to his 911 call. Investigators found four shell casings from a 9mm gun next to Donna’s body and concluded that she had been shot four times. John collected guns and so police checked to see if any of them had been recently used, but they had not been.
John gave the police an alibi. He told them that he left the clinic, his workplace, at 11:30 am, drove to his son Joby’s nursery school to pick him up, drove to see his wife’s cousin, Maxine Brown, for lunch, and then went home when Maxine said she had to stay at work. There he discovered Donna’s body.
On January 22, 1968, police visited John at work and arrested him for the murder of his wife.
I think that the police were under a great deal of pressure from the Black press at the time. And I think they saw a chance. Because 85% of murders are committed by either the family or friends, close friends — they saw a chance to arrest me. And they did. I don’t think they thought they were going to convict me, but they arrested me, anyway. — John
Police questioned John on whether or not he owned a specific gun, the Walther PPK, he said that he did not, however, the truth was that he had owned one and sold it to his good friend the year before.
At the time of John’s trial, Martin Luther King had just been murdered and there was increased “racial tension.” His jury was composed of 11 white people and one Black person. The case was built on three assertions: 1) although the murder weapon was never found, the bullets that killed Donna could have been fired from a Walther PPK that had been part of John’s gun collection; 2) the four shell casings found by Donna’s body had come from a box of ammunition missing four shells that police had discovered when they searched John’s closet; and 3) John’s motive for wanting Donna dead was that he had been cheating on her for over six years with a nurse from his clinic named Shirley Hudson. Donna knew about the affair, but was apparently fine with it.
Certainly, I had a friend — a girlfriend of six years. It wasn’t a hot-on-the-burner affair. There was nothing pressing about our relationship. Our relationship was mutually accepted. Shirley never pressed me. And I never, ever thought of leaving Donna. Why would I suddenly decide to kill her? No. — John
Our theory of prosecution was that he had planned for — why that day, we don’t know — to kill his wife. And then he was going to leave the hospital, come home, and kill her — do it silently. When that didn’t work, he used the gun, then he pick up his son at school, then pick up Maxine for the luncheon date that was made at the very last minute the night before, have lunch, have an alibi for the period of time involved, and then have either someone or himself find the body and have a very good alibi. — Patrick Tuite, former prosecutor
Donna’s brother, Nelson Brown, testified that on the day she had been murdered, John told him that his Walther PPK had been stolen from his bedside. John explained that in the confusion of Donna’s murder he had not immediately noticed the theft.
John’s defense was that it was impossible for him to be in two places at once. His next door neighbor, Theresa Kentra, testified that she heard gunshots at 11:20 am, while he was reportedly still at his clinic. She is absolutely sure that she heard the shots at 11:20 am. The prosecution essentially ignored this testimony and operated based on the assumption that Donna’s murder occurred after John left the clinic around 11:30 am.
Police testified that they had driven the route John would have taken and they timed it at taking between six and 12 minutes. The defense argued against this testimony stating that the timeline did not include actually parking at the nursery school and going inside to retrieve a child, therefore making it inaccurate. Police admitted that they did not allow any time for that in their calculations of the timeline.
After deliberating for eight hours, the jury found John guilty. He was free on bail for three years as he appealed his verdict and during this time he married his longtime girlfriend, Shirley, and moved with her to Wyoming.
I loved him, and I still love him very much. And I could not desert him as people were beginning to do. He was a walking shell. He’d loved both of us. He loved Donna, and he loved me. — Shirley (Hudson) Branion, current wife
In April 1971, his final appeal was denied and he began serving his 20 to 30 year prison sentence. A few days later, John jumped bail, left the country, and lived in Africa for 12 years. In 1983, he was arrested in Uganda and sent back to Illinois to complete his sentence. John claims he fled the country because he could not get justice in America.
The evidence against me proves that I couldn’t have done the crime, yet I’m here. — John
Two investigators volunteered their services to John to help him with his case. The D’Amato’s, a husband and wife team, partnered with Shirley to document what they consider to be a shocking miscarriage of justice. They believe it would have been physically impossible for John to have murdered Donna.
The fact is that when his wife was murdered, he was a mile and a half away treating patients in a hospital, and that’s proven. That’s a fact. So there’s no legal rule whatsoever that says an innocent man has to stay in prison. — Anthony D’Amato
John’s innocence or guilt hinges on the small window of time between when he left work and when he picked up his son from nursery school. At 11:35 am, John left the clinic and stopped outside to speak with the hospital administrator. He was then seen by a teacher picking up his son at school about 10 minutes later. So, in order to have murdered Donna, John would have had to have driven to his home, shot his wife, and then raced to his son’s school all in less than 10 minutes.
The D’Amato’s claim that the drive between those two locations takes them 11 minutes to complete. They hired a pathologist, Dr. Douglas R. Shanklin, who looked at Donna’s records and he concluded that she had been assaulted at least a half hour before John had even begun to drive home, and that the attack had taken at least two assailants. He also suggested that she had marks on her that indicated somebody was standing behind her with a taut cord wrapped around her neck in order to move her to where she was eventually shot and killed. He said that such an activity would take at least 15 minutes, making the time the crime began around 11 o’clock, not 11:30 am.
I think Dr. Branion is innocent of this crime because there were two people at least involved, one of whom held the victim for a period of time, but could not have shot at the same time. So there had to be two parties to the final action of this scenario. — Dr. Douglas Shanklin
Patrick Tuite, the former prosecutor, says he has always had doubts as to whether John actually pulled the trigger or had someone do it for him. He says either way, John is guilty.
In 1990, John was granted clemency in consideration for his failing health and died one month later.
Since 1967, and the airing of the episode, new information has come to light. Here’s what I found:
There are reports stating that the Branions’ fought often, and violently.
What was wrong? Fights, said the neighbors. Not just everyday spats, like most married couples have on occasion, but real brawls that lasted long into the night, for days on end, filled with the kind of shouting and screaming that was impossible to ignore (Source: Colin Evans, Killer Doctors).
Despite what John claimed, it seems that Donna was not at all okay with his infidelity.
[F]or the past several months Donna Branion had been convinced that her husband was seeing another woman, maybe even more than one. Her highly vocal accusations had been vehemently denied by Branion, though he had been heard to yell back that, if he did seek the comfort of another woman’s charms, then the fault would lie with Donna herself (Source: Colin Evans, Killer Doctors).
Neighbors confirmed that John was dissatisfied with Donna’s aging body, and he had no trouble finding other women to sleep with that he found more appealing.
Less than 48-hours after Donna was murdered, John got on a plane with his girlfriend, Shirley Hudson, and flew to Vail, Colorado, for a Christmas getaway. Not only was he having an affair with the nurse, Shirley, but it appears he had another “girlfriend” as well.
Dr. Branion had another lady on the line, Anicetra Souza, who admitted to being a good friend, but swore there was nothing of an intimate nature between her and John (Source: Newspaper Archive).
Various reports claim that John asked Donna for a divorce, but she refused, although other sources claim that John was afraid Donna would divorce him and leave him in financial ruin. It is unclear what actually occurred.
At one point John gave an interview where he claimed that the local police had murdered Donna.
“I was the medical arm of many of the revolutionary groups of the 60s. The Blackstone Rangers, the Weathermen… The state’s attorney’s office found out about this and hounded me on the phone for a long time. In October of the year my wife was killed they said, if you think you’re going to get away with this — you’re not, and the next thing we knew, my wife was dead” (Source: Michael Miner, Can Tabloid TV Save Her Man?).
In Killer Doctors, Colin Evans wrote that John had seen his last patient at the clinic at 11:25 am, and only stayed a minute.
His last patient, a young man suffering from a minor chest ailment, recalled Dr. Branion coming to his room at 11:25 am. He remembered the time precisely because, like most hospital patients, he was bored lying in bed and looked forward to the doctor’s visit to break the monotony… The patient remarked that Dr. Branion had seemed preoccupied, eager to conclude the visit.
Court documents state a contrary timeline than the one given by UM.
- At 11:05am, Mrs. Theresa Kentra, the Branions neighbor, came home from a shopping trip and began to put away groceries;
- About 20 minutes later, at 11:30am, she heard a loud sound followed by two or three similar sounds and then some kind of commotion; and
- 15 or 20 minutes later, Theresa observed John leaving his apartment through the back porch. A few minutes before this she could see his face and he did not seem disturbed at all.
In addition to Theresa’s statements, there was another neighbor who claimed that he had heard the gunshots coming from the Branion apartment around that time.
While talking on the telephone, the neighbor kept one eye on the clock, conscious of the long-distance telephone charges. The hands had just moved to 11:36 am when he heard what sounded like gunshots… The call lasted until 11:45 am (Source: Colin Evans, Killer Doctors).
The theory given by the prosecution on the episode was that John had murdered Donna between leaving his clinic and arriving and the nursery school to pick up his son. John claimed there had not been enough time for him to commit the murder then, but witness testimony actually contradicts the time he said he was at the school.
The defendant claimed that he arrived at 11:35 A.M. and that when he arrived, his son was out in front. However, Mrs. Joyce Kelly, an assistant teacher, testified that she distinctly remembered seeing the defendant enter the Club between 11:45 and 11:50 A.M. and that his son was not outside but rather in the all-purpose room waiting for his father (Source: The People v. Branion, Justia US Law).
In Killer Doctors, Joyce Kelly further disputed John’s claim that his son was waiting for him outside the school.
Under no circumstances, she told [the detective] angrily, would she allow a four-year-old child to be left outside on a busy thoroughfare to wait for a parent… Besides, she sniffed, [the detective] was quite wrong in saying that Dr. Branion had arrived at 11:35 am. She knew very well what time the doctor arrived. She should, since he was fifteen minutes late. He had pulled up at 11:45 am.
The Lethbridge Herald reports that John said he left his son Joby in the car after picking him up from school, and did not bring him in with him when he arrived home, like he stated on UM.
Court records show that John claimed he did not run over to Donna’s body when he saw her lying on the ground because he could already tell she was dead based on the lividity in her legs. However, the medical examiner at the scene reported that there was no lividity present in Donna’s body when she pronounced her dead at 12:20 pm, contradicting John’s statement.
The gun that police suspected was used to murder Donna, a Walther PPK, had been in John’s possession and was given to him by a friend, again contradicting John’s previous statements. Police located the brochure for the gun, an extra clip for it, and a manufacturer’s target which bore the number 188274, “the same number as the gun given to the defendant by his friend as a present.” These items were found in a cabinet which had been locked on the day of the crime.
It should be noted that the judge on John’s case may have been guilty of judicial misconduct at the time.
Reginald Holzer, who presided over the trial, may have tried to induce Branion’s many friends to pay him off in exchange for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict — a disposition that in Illinois is not open to appellate review. Holzer has since been convicted of extortion in many other cases (Source: Branion v. Gramly).
On appeal, however, other judges still did not believe John’s story, even accounting for the judicial misconduct.
The implication [of the facts]: Branion went from the Hospital to his apartment, killed his wife and resumed his journey, showing up at the school as late as 11:50. He then stopped to see Maxine Brown, with whom he had made a luncheon date between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. on December 21; Brown cancelled the engagement, returned home, and called the police. The jury would have been entitled to infer — from the timing of the request and the fact that this was the first time he had asked her to lunch — that Branion wanted Brown to be present as a witness to his “discovery” of the body (Source: Branion v. Gramly).
John claimed that the testimony showing how Donna’s neck was bruised proved that she had been strangled for at least 15 minutes, but the court disagrees stating that it actually means a bruise would have taken 15 minutes to form after the application of pressure.
As for the bruises: Branion, a physician, knew how to inflict this kind of injury in minimum time… If Branion killed his wife, he planned to kill her; the assumption of planning helps to evaluate the time sequence. A physician planning murder would have inflicted a kind of injury that looks like it took longer to cause than it did (Source: Branion v. Gramly).
Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).
“The husband did it” is a popular phrase for a reason.
We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight stage process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.
The stages are not necessarily followed chronologically and sometimes couples loop back to earlier stages, for instance if an abuser is able to reestablish control. However, if the relationship culminated in homicide, all eight stages were likely involved.
For a full breakdown on the stages, read the article below.
The 8 Stage Progression to Domestic Violence Related Homicide
The phrase “the husband did it” is popular for a reason.
The details of this case are unique in that a racist judicial system is prominently centered, and very likely based its legal conclusions on white supremacist ideologies. It is an absolute fact of life that racism, specifically anti-Black racism, poisons every aspect of society, and that is especially apparent in the legal system.
As someone with a law degree, reading the arguments made in this case, and then learning about the judicial misconduct involved, left me feeling extremely skeptical about the legal conclusions. I think it is fair to say that the reason John was prosecuted and convicted — where so many other men who commit violence against their female partners are ignored — was indeed rooted in racial prejudice. However, I do not think that fact negates my conclusion that he committed a domestic violence related homicide, it just means that his case did not meet the legal standards for burden of proof.
Using the eight stage framework provided by Dr. Smith, I think that we can reasonably conclude with near certainty that John did it.
Stage 1: Pre-relationship
A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator. Since John and Donna were high school sweethearts, there was no previous dating history.
Stage 2: Early Relationship
The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship. I would consider committing to a high school boyfriend and then marrying him after graduation to be serious early commitment.
Stage 3: Relationship
The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control. This is where most of the variation of abuse occurs among abusers.
Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour… Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage.
In Donna’s case, there is no evidence of physical abuse, but there is evidence of psychological and verbal abuse.
There were multiple reports that she and John fought often, and that they screamed so loudly all the neighbors could hear them. They usually fought over his infidelity, of which he adamantly denied. Additionally, John was often heard yelling that if he did cheat, it was her fault because of her body and low sex drive.
Constantly criticizing a partner’s appearance, insulting them, and telling them they are a bad partner for not being sexually available is abuse.
They’re being put down constantly by a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. These abusers are defining their reality for them. Which is, in essence, insane. But people who experience it may just start to think, “I’m an awful, stupid person” (Source: Patricia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship).
Cheating can also be an indication of verbal or emotional abuse, but I would also consider it sexual abuse as well. This is because the partner being cheated on does not consent to breaking the vow of monogamy or to being exposed to sexually transmitted infections through the introduction of other sexual partners.
A study done in 2017 characterized infidelity not as “a precipitating factor for [intimate partner violence] or infidelity as part of a pattern of violent or aggressive behaviors,” but as domestic violence itself. That may seem extreme, but it all depends on situational context. In an abusive relationship, cheating is inherently abusive.
Domestic violence victim advocates agree that it is definitely an abusive tactic used. In some cases, cheating might be an abusive tactic where one partner uses it to control and hurt the other partner. If your partner cheated on you and you are wondering if it’s an abusive act, ask yourself these questions:
1) Does your partner serially cheat on you and then blame you for his or her behavior?
2) Did your partner cheat on you intentionally to hurt you and does he or she threaten to cheat again?
3) Did your partner cheat to prove that they are more desired, worthy, etc. than you are?
John frequently cheated on Donna with multiple women, and lied about it, but also blamed her for any hypothetical cheating he may have been engaged in. Donna would have been able to answer yes to many of those questions.
Stage 4: Trigger/s
A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control — for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty. Unfortunately it is unclear what the direct events were that caused John to consider committing homicide. I think something must have happened the night before Donna was murdered, however, because of how John had suddenly decided to invite Maxine to lunch the next day, something he had never done before.
Stage 5: Escalation
An increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide. Unfortunately, we don’t have any details of what John might have done at this stage.
Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision
The perpetrator has a change in thinking — choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide. I think we can again see evidence of this in the phone conversation he had with Maxine the night before Donna’s murder.
Stage 7: Planning
The perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone. We can see evidence of planning when John made plans with Maxine for the next day and decided to pick up his son 15 minutes late. I think John moved through stages 4 to 7 all on the night before Donna’s murder.
Stage 8: Homicide
The perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. Given what the police, neighbors, and co-workers said, I think we can safely assume that John murdered Donna shortly after leaving his clinic around 11:26 am before picking up his son at 11:45 am. The neighbor statements, and the testimony of his son’s teacher, all plausibly place John at his home at the time of the murders: he arrived at his home around 11:30 am, attempted to strangle his wife, and then eventually shot her at 11:36 am; he then quickly cleaned up the murder scene and drove to his son’s school to pick him up at 11:45 am; from there he drove to Maxine’s office; and finally he drove home, arriving sometime before 11:55 am. At 11:57 am he called the police.
Based on the markers for domestic violence, the evidence provided by police, and the statements by neighbors, I think that John Branion murdered Donna Branion on December 22, 1967, after following the eight stage progression to domestic violence related homicide.
In other words, the husband did it.
A discussion on how and why I use the term domestic violence.
Cyclical Violence at the Hands of a Loved One
Let me explain what I mean by “domestic violence.”
For other information on DV, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start.