GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic argued Thursday before the Michigan Court of Appeals to overturn a double murder conviction from 14 years ago, the original detectives in the case sat and watched.
They also believe Jeff Titus is innocent.
“There’s a man sitting in prison that didn’t do the crime that he’s convicted of,” retired Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Detective Royce Ballett said after the hearing.
Ballett said he has visited Titus in prison and has gotten to know his family.
“I’m not saying anybody doesn’t make mistakes, but on this particular occasion with Jeff Titus, he didn’t do it,” Ballett said.
“Somebody out there got away with murder, absolutely,” he added.
Titus, now 64, remains in prison. The clinic attorneys are asking the Court of Appeals for a new trial after a Kalamazoo County judge ruled against overturning the case in 2015. A decision could be months away.
Ballett and former detective Bruce Wieresma investigated the November 1990 murders of Doug Estes and Jim Bennett, who were both shot while hunting in the Fulton State Game Area in Kalamazoo County. One was shot with buckshot, the other with a slug.
Titus owned the property next door. The detectives said they cleared him during the original investigation.
One reason for that, they said, was that alibi witnesses put Titus nearly 30 miles away that afternoon in Bedford Township, near Battle Creek, hunting with a friend. The crime scene was a 60-mile roundtrip from where he was.
“You’re talking 60 miles through traffic, plus the fact you’ve got to get out of your vehicle, go find these people and, according to the prosecuting attorney, steal their deer,” Ballett said.
After Titus was cleared, the case went nowhere, until a cold case team took it over a decade later and focused back on him.
A Kalamazoo County Circuit Court jury in 2002 convicted Titus, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
The original detectives reached out to the Michigan Innocence Clinic; it’s the first time that’s happened since the clinic was created eight years ago.
“We don’t normally hear from law enforcement, much less law enforcement from the same agency that brought the charges to say we got the wrong guy,” said David Moran of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
The clinic argued the judge made mistakes and that Titus’s defense attorney failed him.
“The problem here is that the original detectives found some pretty strong evidence that whoever did this, it wasn’t Jeff Titus,” Moran said.
But by the time Titus was on trial, his alibi witnesses were suffering dementia, Moran said. Those witnesses have since died.
The clinic attorneys argued that defense attorney William Fette should have asked the original detectives to testify about Titus’s alibi, but Fette didn’t reach out to the detectives.
Moran said the defense also failed to interview a member of the cold case team who believed the killings were done by more than one person.
“Why wouldn’t you talk to the original detectives?” Moran said. “It seems so elementary to us, that it’s the most obvious thing in the world, talk to the people in law enforcement who have cleared your client.”
Moran said Fette was later disbarred over an unrelated case.
“We were not able to find him,” Moran said. “He avoided our attempts to contact him and the prosecution wasn’t able to find him either.”
On Thursday, Kalamazoo County Assistant Prosecutor Mark Holsomback argued against overturning the case. He said the two original case detectives conducted a “failed investigation” and made mistakes. He said both are trying to save face.
“He comes forward out of ego,” the prosecutor said of Ballett. “He thinks he’s right in clearing the defendant as a suspect, when he’s obviously not.”
Ballett, a detective for 31 years before retiring in 1986, said he knew the mother of one of the victims.
“If there was anybody who wanted to find who did this, it was me,” he said. “This was not an ego situation; it was somebody who was looking for the perpetrator.”