COLDWATER, Mich. (WOOD) — Two men waited outside the Lakeland Correctional Facility early Thursday to welcome Jeff Titus to freedom 21 years after he was convicted of two murders that evidence now shows he did not commit.
Daniel Ballett and his brother, James, the sons of one of the original Kalamazoo County detectives in the 1990 double murder case, will have to wait for another day.
The state Attorney General had asked a federal judge for Titus’ immediate release, saying evidence points to someone else — to a wrongful conviction.
But bad weather closed U.S. District Court in Detroit on Thursday, and Titus remains locked up.
“We’re here to hopefully see Jeff Titus released, who is an innocent man,” said Daniel Ballett, who waited with his brother in a pickup truck outside the Lakeland Correctional Facility.
Their father, Royce Ballett, and another original detective had fought for Titus’ release for more than a decade.
Their father died in January 2022.
“We’re here for our father,” James Ballett said. “He would have been the first one here. He would have stayed the night last night here; he would have stayed as long as he had to watch this man walk out.”
The original detectives had quickly cleared Titus in the November 1990 shooting deaths of hunters Doug Estes and Jim Bennett in the Fulton State Game Area.
As Target 8 reported in 2017, alibi witnesses had placed Titus 27 miles away at the time.
But a cold case team a decade later ignored those alibis, leading a jury to convict Titus in 2002. He got life in prison without parole.
Ballett’s sons blame the cold case team.
“They wanted to have a conviction, and this man has paid the price,” James Ballett said.
“Unfortunately, if the jury would have heard testimony from our dad, the original detective, I don’t think Jeff Titus would be in the facility today, or at all,” Daniel Ballett added.
It was the original detectives who asked the Michigan Innocence Clinic to investigate the case in 2012.
Royce Ballett’s sons say their father talked often with Titus by phone. After their father died, their mom kept in contact.
“She’s continued to give him hope, and she promised that we would be here when he walked out,” James Ballett said.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, working with the Michigan Innocence Clinic, asked the federal judge on Tuesday to immediately release Titus and order a new trial.
They pointed to evidence against an an alternate suspect, Thomas Dillon, who confessed to hunting down and killing five hunters and outdoorsmen in Ohio. He died in prison.
In 2020, producers of the “Undisclosed” podcast and the TV network Investigation Discovery found Ohio police reports about Dillon’s possible connection to the murders.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic then found a file about Dillon at the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department, said clinic director David Moran.
Bruce Wiersema, one of the original detectives, had investigated Dillon and created the file, but believed Dillon had an alibi, Moran said. Ballett, the other original detective, had retired and was not aware of the possible Dillon connection, his sons said.
Moran said it wasn’t clear if the cold case team or the prosecutor’s office ever saw the file. The defense team never did, neither did the jury.
The producers and crew members of the podcast and investigative discovery programs were also in Coldwater on Thursday, waiting in a hotel not far from the prison for Titus’ release.
Moran, the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, also waited.
Moran said he expects the judge will sign the release order on Friday, and that Titus will walk free.