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UM Innocence Clinic & two retired cops fighting to free man convicted of double murder

Michigan Department of Corrections

Jeff Titus is currently serving two life sentences for a double homicide in 1990.

Two men believe Titus’ alibi that he was hunting in a different part of the state at the time the shootings took place.     The two men are the original detectives who investigated the crime.

On November 17th, 1990, Doug Estes and Jim Bennett were hunting in the Fulton State Gaming Area.  Both were shot in the back at close range.  

The shooting occurred near the property of Jeff Edward Titus.  

Titus was questioned by detectives. He had an alibi.   Titus claimed he had been hunting on a friend’s property away from Kalamazoo County. The elderly couple confirmed Titus’ alibi. 

The case eventually went cold.

In 2000, a cold case squad reopened the investigation. Police eventually compiled enough evidence that prosecutors charged Jeff Titus with the crime.  In 2002, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Today, the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic filed a motion on behalf of Jeff Titus for “relief from judgment” in the Kalamazoo County Circuit Court.  

David Moran is the director the Innocence Clinic at the U of M Law School.  The clinic has sought the release of two dozen Michigan prison inmates. They’ve succeeded in nine cases and fully exonerated seven former inmates.

Moran says the Titus case is unique since the two men who brought it to the clinic’s attention are retired police officers, Kalamazoo County Detective Sergeant Roy Ballett and Detective Bruce Wiersema.  

“Roy called us up, not long after the clinic opened and said, 'I’ve got a case for you where the wrong guy was convicted,'” says Moran.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
David Moran (right) is the director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Retired detectives Bruce Wiersema (left) and Roy Ballett stand with Moran outside the Kalamazoo County building.

Roy Ballett retired from law enforcement after 31 years. Bruce Wiersema was a cop for 38 years. 

Ballett and Wiersema say they were “shocked” by the reopening of the case against Titus.

“We never thought he’d be formally charged at all,” says Ballett.

Standing on the steps in front of the Kalamazoo County building this morning, the two retired police officers answered reporters’ questions about the quarter century old murder case.

“The conviction is what spurred us to come forward,” says Wiersema, “We didn’t expect the conviction to go through.” 

The two men say they tried to talk with prosecutors and Titus’ defense attorney about the case, but to no avail.

“The affidavits that we have from these detectives document their efforts to right this wrong as it was happening and how they were pretty much ignored,” says David Moran with the Innocence Clinic.

The paperwork filed today points a critical finger at the job done by Titus’ attorney during his murder trial.       

“To us, the most obvious piece of investigation when you learn that your client was cleared in the original investigation is to talk with those officers who cleared your client in the original investigation.  And that wasn’t done,” says Moran.

Titus’ trial attorney, whom Moran says has since been disbarred, also failed to use statements from the two witnesses who backed Titus’ alibi.  Both witnesses were suffering from dementia at the time of the 2002 trial. Moran says the defense attorney also failed to challenge evidence that suggested the two men were killed by two different weapons.

Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffery Getting declined to comment directly on either the Titus case or the Innocence Clinic filing.  

Credit Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's office
Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's office
Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffery Getting declined to comment on the Titus case, saying it would be "inappropriate at this time."

He said it would be inappropriate to comment at this time while his office is reviewing the filing and waiting to see if the court will request a response from his office. 

Getting did say it is important to remember that the case against Jeff Titus was heard by a jury that delivered a unanimous verdict. 

The Innocence Clinic’s David Moran says the Titus case raises two serious issues.   First, that an innocent man may have spent a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. Second, if Jeff Titus is innocent, that means a killer or maybe killers, are still walking free.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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