In 1990, detectives determined that Jeff Titus couldn’t have been the shooter in the murders of two hunters in Kalamazoo County, Michigan who were killed near his property. But in 2002, the county cold case unit re-opened the double murder and pursued Titus, 62. He was convicted on August 19, 2002 of both murders and given two life sentences. Twelve years later, the original detectives along with the Michigan Innocence Clinic say that the cold case unit is wrong and the facts of the case still show Titus is innocent. The MIC started work on Titus’ case in 2011. Both the original detectives and the MIC say that the real double murderer is still free while Titus serves their time. A jury found Titus guilty of shooting both Doug Estes and Jim Bennett through the back. The bullets passed through their hunting licenses. They were murdered at the Fulton State Gaming Area, which is adjacent to Titus’ property in November of 1990. Speaking to reporters on the steps of the Kalamazoo County Courthouse Tuesday, Attorney David A. Moran said that out of the 25 cases the Innocence Clinic has handled, this one is unique in that they were contacted by the investigating officers in the case.
“They called us…and said, ‘I have a case for you where the wrong man was convicted,'” Moran said, “When I asked him how he [was sure], he said ‘Because I was the original investigating officer.”
Former detectives Roy Ballett and Bruce Wiersema, who investigated the double murder in 1990, said that Titus had an alibi. Gerald and Loise Shepard told the police that Titus was hunting at the time of the murders in an entirely different county, Calhoun. Titus had asked the Shepards’ if he could hunt on their farm and he didn’t leave until 6 p.m.
“That [made it] impossible for [him] to have committed the murders in Kalamazoo County around 4:30 p.m.” Moran said.
In their motion for a new trial, Moran argues that Titus received ineffective assistance of counsel from his trial lawyer, William Fette. Moran said it was a “gross example” since the defense attorney didn’t even contact the original detectives who cleared Titus. In addition, Kalamazoo County Cold Case Team Detective Richard Mattison signed an affidavit submitted with the new trial motion that says he concluded the evidence shows there were two shooters. Mattison was subsequently removed from the case by his superiors because he didn’t believe Titus was guilty either. His conclusions were never presented at trial.
Moran said that Titus was “very pleased that someone was taking his claims seriously.” Titus has always maintained his innocence. Titus told the judge at his sentencing, “I’m an innocent man going to prison because no other suspect could be found.”
In 2004, the Court of Appeals rejected Titus’ appeal. Then, in 2009, Titus filed an appeal with a federal appeals court arguing that prosecutors failed to establish the murders were deliberate. A three-judge panel found that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find Titus guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in addition to three detectives who worked on the case separately believing Titus wasn’t the killer, there was never any physical evidence presented at trial, according to the new trial appeal.
The original detectives were surprised that a jury convicted Titus, “It’s disconcerting. It’s something that’s hard to live with…”