DETROIT (AP) — A judge threw out murder convictions Friday and ordered the release of a man who has long claimed innocence in the slayings of two Michigan deer hunters in 1990.
Jeff Titus, 71, has served nearly 21 years of a life prison sentence. The state this week asked that he be freed, saying an Ohio serial killer instead could have been responsible for the deaths in southwestern Michigan.
Titus’ rights were violated at trial in 2002 when his lawyer never was informed that sheriff’s investigators in Kalamazoo County had gathered evidence years earlier against Thomas Dillon, the attorney general’s office said.
U.S. District Judge Paul Borman signed off on a joint request to release Titus from a prison in Coldwater. A second trial is very unlikely.
“We believe the case is over,” David Moran of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school said while on his way to Coldwater.
Doug Estes and Jim Bennett were fatally shot near Titus’ rural property in 1990. Titus was cleared as a suspect — he had been hunting deer 27 miles (43 kilometers) away — but murder charges were filed against him 12 years later, after a new team of sheriff’s investigators had reopened the case.
There was no physical evidence against Titus; prosecutors portrayed him as a hothead who didn’t like trespassers.
In 2018, the Innocence Clinic went to federal court, arguing that Titus’ constitutional rights were violated because his trial lawyer was never told that an investigator believed there could have been two shooters, a theory that could have undermined the case.
Then in 2020, while that appeal was pending, Moran made an even more stunning discovery in dusty boxes at the sheriff’s office: a 30-page file from the original investigation that had referred to an alternate suspect, Dillon, a Magnolia, Ohio, man who was never charged.
Separately, Dillon was making headlines in Ohio with his arrest in 1993. He pleaded guilty to killing five people in that state who had been hunting, fishing or jogging, from 1989 to 1992. He died in 2011.
The file revealed that a woman and her son, taken to Ohio by investigators, had identified Dillon as the man in a car in a ditch near the Michigan murder scene. The woman also described a car that resembled one owned by Dillon’s wife.
A man who had shared a jail cell with Dillon in 1993 told the FBI at that time that Dillon had referred to killing two people in woods, according to the file.
Moran said much credit belongs to Jacinda Davis and Susan Simpson. Davis, at the TV network Investigation Discovery, and Simpson, through the podcast “Undisclosed,” had raised doubts about Titus’ guilt and Dillon’s possible role.
Moran said their reporting inspired him to go to the sheriff’s office where, after six hours, he found the file with “serial killer” written in pencil.
The attorney general’s office said none of the information about Dillon was given to Titus before trial, and prosecutors and the cold case team apparently were unware of it, too.
Moran said it was a thin file among an “absolutely enormous” set of records.
“I just assume they missed it,” he said.