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Man's murder conviction vacated after 2 decades: “I am so glad to be free"

An image of Jeff Titus from prison
Michigan Department of Corrections
Jeff Titus has served more than two decades in prison for two murders he says he didn't commit. Friday, a judge vacated his convictions, based on new evidence that wasn't presented at his trial.

Jeff Titus walked out of prison with some cravings.

He’s spent more than two decades locked up for a double murder that happened at the edge of his property in Kalamazoo County in 1990. The victims, Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, were both hunters, found yards apart. At the time of the murder, Titus says he was more than 20 miles away. The original detectives in the case cleared him. But a cold case team that picked up the murder investigation in 2000 pinned it on him. A jury convicted him, and in 2002 Titus was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“I am so glad to be free."

But Friday, a federal judge vacated Titus’ conviction, and he walked out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility a free man.

“I am so glad to be free, finally after 22 years of a nightmare that should never have happened,” he said by phone from a restaurant, his first stop after leaving prison.

The next stop, he said, would be for donuts.

“I want to go to Sweetwater’s Donut and have a New York Cheesecake,” Titus said, recalling the Kalamazoo-area donut shop he used to visit. “It was my hangout.”

Titus was surrounded by people who’ve been working for years to see this day happen: His attorney, David Moran, at the Michigan Innocence Clinic; Producers from the Undisclosed Podcast who investigated his case and helped turn up new evidence; A documentary crew, who featured Titus in the series Killer in Question. And the sons of one of the detectives who first cleared Titus, and who first brought his case to the attention of the Innocence Clinic.

“I owe the Innocence Clinic greatly," Titus said, but said it was the documentary and podcast producers who helped open up a case that had been repeatedly rejected by appeals judges.

“They’re the ones that busted this thing wide open,” said Titus.

It was the producers for the Undisclosed Podcast who first tipped off Titus’ Innocence Clinic attorneys about the existence of another suspect in the case — a convicted serial killer from Ohio who had a history of shooting hunters in the woods.

“That caused me to go to the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department and find those files,” said David Moran, an attorney with the Innocence Clinic, who’s been working on Titus’ case for the better part of a decade.

What Moran found was a file containing about 30 pages of documents on the Ohio serial killer, Thomas Dillon. Dillon had confessed to five murders in Ohio. All of the victims had been outdoors — hunting, fishing or jogging. The documents in the file showed that Dillon matched the description of someone who’d been seen in the area near the time of the murders in Kalamazoo County. And a man who’d met Dillon in prison told investigators Dillon bragged about a “double header” murder that police weren’t aware of. Dillon died in 2011.

The documents don’t prove Dillon was the murderer. But, legally, the evidence should have been made available to attorneys, Moran argued. Not turning it over was a violation of Titus’ right to due process.

“Yeah, when I saw those pages, and saw all the really powerful evidence pointing to Thomas Dillon as the actual killer, I really believed that the case was going to be won,” Moran said Friday. “Unfortunately it took another three years, but at that point I really did believe that the case would be won.”

"This missing evidence was so powerful that in good conscience we could not ignore it."
Attorney General Dana Nessel

The evidence was also reviewed by the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, which reviews innocence claims.

Friday, Attorney General Dana Nessel said the unit confirmed the file had never been turned over at trial, and the cold-case investigators who’d honed in on Titus as a suspect were unaware of the evidence pointing to Thomas Dillon.

“This missing evidence was so powerful that in good conscience we could not ignore it,” Nessel said Friday in an online press conference. “Mr. Titus did not receive a fair trial because this evidence was withheld. And justice requires an avenue for dismissal of the case.”

The Attorney General’s office joined with attorneys at the Innocence Clinic in asking for Titus’ conviction to be vacated. And though Titus is now free, he has not technically been exonerated. Titus could still be tried again for the murders, if Kalamazoo County prosecutor Jeffrey Getting decides he still has enough evidence to convict. Getting said he hasn’t yet made that decision.

“It absolutely is powerful evidence. It absolutely is relevant. It is absolutely exculpatory,” Getting said.

But he said he wants to meet with the relatives of Estes and Bennett, and consult with his investigators before making a final decision on whether to recharge Titus.

If Titus isn’t retried, and his murder convictions remain vacated, he could file a legal claim for more than $1 million in compensation under Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Act. The act provides for up to $50,000 in compensation for every year an innocent person spends in prison, plus attorney’s fees. But on Friday afternoon, enjoying his first meal as a free man, Titus’ mind wasn’t on his money. It was on his belly.

And once he got his fill of donuts, he said it would be time to sit down and write.

“I don’t know what the next couple of days hold,” Titus said. “I’m going to find me a place, sit down and make cards. That’s one thing I learned to do in prison was make greeting cards.”

And it’s one thing, he says, he’s not going to stop doing now that he’s finally free.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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