KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Murder charges have been dismissed against Jeff Titus, who spent two decades behind bars for two murders that he always denied committing.
“All I can say is, I’m an innocent man. I am glad to have this off of my head and that I can get on with my life,” Titus, 71, said. “I have no hard feelings ’cause it doesn’t help me to let that eat at me.”
He said he couldn’t describe his feelings.
“I’m just shaking all inside. I’m ecstatic,” he said.
Two counts of murder and two weapons charges were dismissed Thursday after Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting decided not to pursue a retrial.
“As we stand here today, Mr. Titus is a free man,” Getting said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, prompting applause.
Getting said when discussing the matter with his assistant prosecutors and detectives, “we always come back to the same conclusion, which is (that) this is simply the right thing to do, and it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
He said it is his job not just to convict criminals, but also, more importantly, to ensure the law is fairly applied.
“I can’t even begin to make up for 21 years in prison,” Getting said. “I don’t even have words to describe that.”
Deer hunters Jim Bennett and Doug Estes were killed in November 1990 in the Fulton State Game Area.
The original detectives on the case quickly cleared Titus through alibi witnesses who put him more than 25 miles away when the murders happened. But in 2002, those alibi witnesses were ignored by cold case detectives, leading to Titus’ conviction. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I did not do it. I was not there,” Titus said Thursday. “I did not shoot those people and I was not back there on my property and I did not go back there with the suspicion that someone was on my property shooting my deer, as the scenario was so dubbed.”
The Michigan Innocence Clinic took up his case and a 2017 Target 8 investigation raised serious questions about the prosecution. In February, a federal judge vacated Titus’ convictions and ordered his immediate release after finding that evidence uncovered decades ago but never presented to the jury pointed to an alternate suspect — a serial killer named Thomas Dillon.
On Thursday, Getting said he understood why the case was pursued in 2002 but acknowledged the trial was not fair.
“I sure wish we all would’ve known that 20 years ago, because it could’ve been fixed then,” he said.
He said he didn’t know how the information about Dillon got lost before it made it to the jury.
“I’m willing to say that the trial that led to his conviction was fundamentally flawed,” Getting said. “I don’t know what the phrase ‘wrongfully’ means. I will say that he did not get a fair trial.”
He said he is considering an investigation into why the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department didn’t turn over evidence about Dillon to prosecutors or the defense.
“Will there be, should there be? I think it merits looking into further to see if we can figure out how or what happened here, but again we’re talking about something that happened 20-plus years ago,” he said.
Titus walked out of prison Feb. 24. Though his convictions were vacated, a question remained about whether Getting would take the case back to trial.
“You have to ask yourself, what would a trial look like today if we proceeded to trial?” the prosecutor said. “We’re talking about an incident that happened three-plus decades ago. … We’re talking about an investigation into another suspect, Thomas Dillon, that took place three decades ago. We’re talking about a cold case investigation that took place over two decades ago and a trial that took place over two decades ago. And trying to move forward with a case like that today is impossible. It would not lead to a conclusion, whether it was guilty or not guilty, that anyone would have any confidence in the outcome, would have any reasonable belief that the outcome was correct because the process itself would be full of compromise.”
Getting said he would have to rely on statements from witnesses who are no longer available, testimony from a trial 20 years ago would have changed since then. He noted three detectives who investigated the murders are dead. So are Dillon and Titus’ alibi witnesses.
“When we move forward with a trial, we do it knowing that we have a reasonable probability of conviction. We do it knowing that we have admissible evidence that leads us to that conclusion. We do that knowing that we’re confident in the truth of the testimony that we’re presenting. And we do that with certainty that there will be a fair trial,” Getting said. “That certainty, in this case, is not there. It just isn’t.”
Titus’s civil attorney, Wolf Mueller, said he plans to file a civil case Monday, seeking more than $1 million from the state’s wrongful conviction fund — $50,000 for each year Titus served in prison.
“An alternate suspect who was picked out by two people and you don’t turn that over to them? That’s as egregious as it gets,” Mueller said. “We will get to the bottom with testimony of the detectives of who knew what and why didn’t the prosecutor’s office get this information about the serial killer? Because that would have turned the case right on its head.”
Titus’s defense attorney, Mary Chartier, said the Dillon evidence would have kept Titus out of prison.
“If someone commits a Brady violation, knowingly and intentionally withholding exculpatory or material evidence, in my opinion, they should be criminally charged,” she said, though she doubts anything will come of it.
As for who killed Estes and Bennett, Getting said he simply doesn’t know.