Shortly after 2 p.m. on November 13, 1994, police in Fort Smith, Arkansas were summoned to the home of 45-year-old Michael Branch to investigate a shooting. They found 30-year-old Richard David Taylor dead from a 12-gauge shotgun blast to his chest.
Branch said that Taylor was examining the shotgun because he was interested in purchasing it when it went off by accident. Two other witnesses, Dustin Leighton and Helen Graham, who was Branch’s girlfriend, also told police the shooting was an accident.
However, after an autopsy showed that the body had been dead for a few hours and a neighbor reported hearing a gunshot at 11 a.m.—three hours before police were called—detectives became suspicious and conducted further interrogation of Leighton and Graham.
Two days later, police charged Branch with first-degree murder. Leighton was charged with felony hindering apprehension. Police said that Branch falsely claimed the shooting was an accident and that Leighton was charged after he admitted during interrogation that the shooting was not an accident.
Police said Graham also changed her account and said that Branch and Taylor were arguing about a joint business venture and the shotgun discharged as Branch was poking Taylor in the chest with it.
Branch went on trial in Sebastian County Circuit Court in November 1995. Leighton, whose charge had been dismissed, testified for the prosecution that Branch and Taylor were arguing over whether Taylor was stealing goods from a business they ran jointly and that Branch intentionally shot Taylor.
Graham testified that Branch had a pistol in his hand when he let Taylor into the house. Graham said that Taylor pushed the pistol away and they argued in the kitchen. She said that Branch put the pistol down and grabbed a shotgun and poked Taylor with it while Taylor was sitting in a chair. The gun went off and Taylor was killed instantly. According to Graham, Branch said he thought the gun was not loaded.
Branch testified in his own defense and said that Taylor picked up the gun to inspect it and it went off by accident.
On November 16, 1995, a jury convicted Branch of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In 1997, the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the judge had erroneously allowed prosecutors to present evidence that Branch may have admitted owning stolen guns. According to police, when officers initially responded to the shooting, they asked Branch if he had other guns and he said there were three guns in his car and they might be stolen. The court ruled the testimony about Branch’s comment was unfairly prejudicial.
Branch went on trial a second time in March 1998. Leighton again testified that Branch shot Taylor during an argument.
By the time Graham took the witness stand in the retrial, she was married to Branch. She testified that her testimony at the first trial was a lie that was coerced by police who called her retarded, kept “getting up” in her face and told her they would lock her up and throw away the key unless she implicated Branch.
Graham said that Leighton was arguing with Taylor because Taylor had begun dating Leighton’s ex-girlfriend. They were struggling over a shotgun that was on the kitchen table, she said. Branch attempted to intercede and wrest the gun away from them, but it went off, striking Taylor, Graham said.
On March 24, 1998, the jury acquitted Branch and he was released.
– Maurice Possley