Can Tabloid TV Save Her Man?

Mock, if you want, TV’s free and easy way with reality. A crew from one of those crime-busting shows that trowel on the verisimilitude spent eight days in Chicago recently, filming actors reenacting grim events from police files. But when their handiwork airs, most likely in late December, the public will know about a convicted killer who might be completely innocent.

On December 22, 1967, Donna Branion, 41-year-old wife and mother, was shot to death in her family’s Hyde Park apartment. By whom? We do not know, NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries intends to tell the nation.

And with this declaration, network television will contradict the jury that in 1968 decreed Donna Branion’s death neither “unsolved” nor a “mystery”–the jury that convicted Dr. John M. Branion Jr. of murdering his wife.

“Very seldom do you get an innocent man in prison who is provably innocent and has been proved innocent in the courts, and is still in prison,” Branion told us the other day by telephone from the Dixon Correctional Center, where he is serving a 20-to-30-year sentence. “That’s what’s so remarkable about this case.”

Branion complains bitterly that the press has ignored him. But one long, detailed account of his wife’s murder–“a crime that common sense says he did not commit”–appeared in the old Chicago Lawyer in 1987. Branion’s present wife, Shirley, began mailing the article to anyone in videoland who might help–to 60 Minutes, to 20/20, and 13 months ago to Unsolved Mysteries, care of NBC in New York.

The Chicago Lawyer article was read weeks later by Kris Palmer, a producer at Cosgrove-Meurer Productions in Burbank, California, which is where Unsolved Mysteries originates. “I had a sense,” Palmer tells us, “this was really an incredible story–which in fact it turned out to be.”

It’s certainly a stretch; Unsolved Mysteries’ usual fare is crimes the cops can’t crack, not crimes they closed the book on 21 years ago.

“There’s a lot of evidence which suggests this man couldn’t have committed the crime,” says Palmer. “What we look at in this kind of story is not so much the mystery of it but–how could this have happened? We look at Branion, what he did, the times. The things he did as a physician made him very unpopular with certain people in Chicago.”

Branion told us, “I was the medical arm of many of the revolutionary groups of the 60s. The Blackstone Rangers, the Weathermen . . . I’d treat them when they were shot and I wouldn’t report it to the police. 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.”

But even if sinister forces put Branion in the dock, incompetence seems to have convicted him. “Of course, it was my lawyer who screwed up the whole thing,” Branion says today, “but every witness the state put on supported my story.”

Branion’s attorney presented but one witness, a brother of Donna Branion whose role was to show that John Branion’s in-laws still believed in him. To keep the jury from learning that Branion had been having an affair (with the woman now his wife), the doctor himself was not called to the stand. Neither were any of about 20 alibi witnesses.

The heart of the prosecution’s case was the four shell casings and four pellets fired by a Walther PPK that were recovered after the crime. Branion, a gun collector, had owned a Walther PPK; now it had disappeared. Also gone were four shells from a box of ammunition in Branion’s closet.

But mightn’t an intruder have turned Branion’s gun on Branion’s wife? You would expect a jury to demand much more evidence than this. Branion’s jury didn’t.

The prosecution contended that Branion had killed his wife sometime between 11:30 AM (when a neighbor heard shots) and 11:57 AM, which is when another neighbor called the police at Branion’s urging. According to a police detective’s testimony, Branion told police he’d left the Ida Mae Scott Hospital on South Prairie at 11:30, and arrived home for lunch–to discover his wife’s body–at 11:52. Other state witnesses had Branion making two stops in the interim–one to pick up his son from nursery school, the other to pick up a friend of his wife. So when did Branion have time to murder anybody? Furthermore, Donna Branion was murdered slowly. A Cook County pathologist testified that a bruise on Donna Branion’s neck, apparently caused by a rope or cord, would have taken at least 15 minutes to form, and would not have formed after her death.

Guilty, said the jury.

The cast and crew from Unsolved Mysteries took over one of the old courtrooms at 26th and California and restaged bits of the trial. They also reenacted Dr. Branion’s midday activities–using stand-ins for the hospital (now closed), for the nursery school, and even for the Branion apartment. Branion’s present-day champions–Northwestern University law professor Anthony D’Amato and his wife Barbara, an author of mystery novels–were filmed duplicating a drive they once took in order to retrace Branion’s path with a stopwatch. For television, they drove a street not even on the route.

And John Branion’s 12 years on the lam in Africa–from 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction, to 1983, when he was apprehended in Uganda–will be reduced on TV to a few snapshots. “We didn’t have it in the budget to go there,” says Kris Palmer.

No, Branion is not getting a full-bore Thin Blue Line treatment. Unsolved Mysteries, an hour-long show, will give his story 10 to 15 minutes. “That’s a lot of time on network television,” said Palmer. “It’s much longer than we usually appropriate for our segments.”

No one but Patrick Tuite, the prosecutor, was willing to go before the cameras to defend the verdict. And even Tuite has doubts. He told us (and the cameras) that maybe Branion wasn’t the triggerman, but maybe he hired whoever was. “Under Illinois law, if you aid and abet any crime you’re as guilty as if you do it yourself. . . .” said Tuite, not that he’d said a word about aiding and abetting during the trial. “We had 12 laymen on the jury who felt that he pulled the trigger. Reasonable people can differ if he was there or not.”

And Branion had a motive, said Tuite: “He didn’t want to go through a messy divorce or custody battle.” This motive was never hinted at in court.

“My wife’s family were millionaires and we would have inherited everything,” Branion told us. “To murder her was stupid. Why would I kill my wife?”

As for his affair, “It was a mellow thing, much like my relationship with my wife. My wife knew about it.”

In 1986, Anthony D’Amato filed a writ of habeas corpus in an attempt to reopen Branion’s case. “Branion’s argument would have significant force and persuasiveness” but for one thing, wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Getzendanner: the evidence that Branion left Ida Mae Scott at 11:30 was “hearsay”; the jury might have supposed that Branion actually took off earlier. She denied the writ.

Those alibi witnesses who would have told the jury otherwise have finally had their say–on Unsolved Mysteries. Last month Branion, who is 63 and suffers from heart disease, asked the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for clemency on grounds of innocence. The board will make a recommendation to the governor, who’ll decide. Branion hopes a lot of people catch him on TV.

“When they do these very bad things, these immoral things, they hope to get away with them because no one musters the publicity to get them exposed,” the doctor told us. “But they respond to 60 Minutes, or 20/20, and now they’re beginning to respond to Unsolved Mysteries.”

Tuite doesn’t care if TV butts in. “I made the comment to them,” he said, “after The Thin Blue Line it seems the new form of habeas corpus is the TV documentary.”

Tuite said Unsolved Mysteries gave him only one problem. “They wanted me to reenact my role in the trial. I wouldn’t do that because I’m not a prosecutor anymore. I have a reputation as a defense lawyer, and I don’t want people to think I’m a prosecutor.”

Foreign Assignment

As deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, Dennis Britton is in charge of national, foreign, business, and economic coverage. He enjoys enormous financial resources, and runs a stable of more than 300 reporters in LA and 35 national and foreign bureaus.

The total editorial staff at the Chicago Sun-Times, where Britton takes over as editor on December 4, numbers about 280. Circulation is plunging, and there isn’t a nickel to spare. What the Sun-Times consists of, essentially, is a city desk, a sports desk, and frills. Dennis Britton doesn’t know Chicago, and for all his abilities he isn’t an obvious fit for his new job.

But Sam McKeel picked him, and we wish him well.

Even before Britton was unveiled this past Tuesday, the long hunt for a new editor had demonstrated McKeel’s executive competence. President of the Sun-Times Company since June, McKeel ran an exceptionally discreet search. Until Monday afternoon, the presumption inside the newsroom was that the new editor would be Kent Bernhard, an old Daily News colleague of several reporters back in the 70s. A file photo of Bernhard even went up on the bulletin board.

The newsroom found out about Tuesday’s press conference when a reporter looking for weather news Monday spotted an announcement on the City News Bureau wire. And inevitably, the Sun-Times was scooped on its own story Tuesday morning by the Tribune.

Publisher Charles Price said he didn’t care. This way the Tribune would have to run the story twice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.