‘I’m free’: Man released after 21 years in prison
Posted For: Le Bouffon du Génocide
by: Rachel Van Gilder, Ken Kolker
COLDWATER, Mich. (WOOD) — Thrilled and at times tearful, a man the state now says was wrongfully convicted of a Kalamazoo County double murder walked free Friday after 21 years.
“I’ve been doing an awful lot of crying,” Jeff Titus said after getting out of prison.
Titus, 71, was greeted with hugs and handshakes as he left the Lakeland Correctional Facility near Coldwater. Free for just minutes, he spoke with Target 8.
“It’s been 22 years waiting for this day and it should never have happened in the first place,” he said. “I’m just ecstatic and overjoyed to finally be out. … I want to see my grandkids. I haven’t seen them.”
He thanked Target 8 for a half-hour investigative report that aired in 2017, detailing how Titus’ alibi was ignored by cold case detectives who investigated the 1990 killings a decade later.
“I appreciate you for it,” Titus told Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker. “It meant a lot and that was the start of it.”
Titus posed for photos with his attorneys and the sons of one of the original detectives on the murder, Royce Ballett, who approached the Michigan Innocence Clinic to try to free him. Daniel and James Ballett brought their late father’s badges.
“I knew I was gonna get out,” Titus told James Ballett.
“We knew you were going to get out for 21 years,” James Ballett said. “You should’ve never been there.”
“You’re free,” Daniel Ballett said as he hugged Titus.
“I’m free,” Titus repeated.
Their mother, the brothers said, was eagerly waiting to meet Titus and hug him.
“We’re so proud of my dad, what he was trying to do for you the whole time,” James Ballett said. “He knew from the day that he took your case. He knew you were innocent and he maintained that. He knew that the whole time.”
Royce Ballett died in January 2022.
The Innocence Clinic took up the case in 2012, with some 35 law students working on it under the guidance of attorney David Moran. Titus is the 40th prisoner the program has helped free in 14 years.
“This is a wonderful moment for me, for Mr. Titus, for the students who worked on the case, for the podcasters and documentarians,” Moran said. “This is the culmination of so many people working for, really, decades.”
“It’s unfortunate that the system failed Jeff so badly, but today we’re just happy going forward, looking forward to the next chapter in Jeff’s life,” he added.
ONE MORE NIGHT IN PRISON
A federal judge signed an order Friday morning saying Titus should be “released from Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) custody forthwith.” The order vacated his convictions and granted him a new trial.
The order had been expected Thursday, but bad weather closed the federal courthouse in Detroit, delaying Titus’ release.
“I’ve been in there just shaking. I thought maybe it was going to happen again today,” Titus said.
Titus said he “bawled” when he learned he would have to spend one more night in prison.
“I said, ‘I don’t have any luck,’” Titus said. “I have luck with these people that are around me and stuff, I have luck with them, but I just felt like, I just kept losing.”
When he was finally free, he said, it felt like a dream.
“When she hugged me, I told her to pinch me to make sure it was real,” he said. “It feels so good to be outside that facility.”
He couldn’t wait to go to Sweetwater’s Donut Mill and have a New York cheesecake doughnut.
“I’m probably gonna buy half a dozen or maybe even three dozen,” Titus said.
Years ago, he played a traffic cop in a commercial for Sweetwater’s.
For his first meal out of prison, this lawyers took him to Coldwater Garden, where he ordered a three-cheese skillet and pancakes.
EVIDENCE NOT GIVEN TO DEFENSE
Then 50, Titus was convicted in 2002 of killing hunters Doug Estes and Jim Bennett in the Fulton State Game Area in November 1990.
“I didn’t do ’em (the murders),” Titus said. “When the Integrity Unit contacted me on an interview, I offered to take truth serum, I offered to take hypnosis, I offered to take an extensive polygraph to show that I was innocent because I am. I did not do it.”
The original detectives on the case decided he could not have done it because he was hunting himself more than 25 miles away. Cold case detectives who took up the case in 2000 rejected that conclusion.
“The system failed when you had a new team 10 years later coming on board and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Moran, the Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney, said.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, working with the Innocence Clinic, confirmed that the jury in Titus’ trial was never told about an alternate suspect, a serial killer named Thomas Dillon, who was convicted of hunting down and killing hunters during that time in Ohio. Evidence pointed to his involvement. Attorney General Dana Nessel said the prosecutors and cold case detectives didn’t have the 30 pages of information about Dillon, either.
Regardless, failure to send that information to the defense attorney violated federal law that requires police to turn over any possible exculpatory evidence.
The file on Dillon was discovered by journalists from Investigation Discovery and the podcast “Undisclosed.”
“It changed everything for my whole case,” Titus said. “The police had that file and they didn’t do nothing with it!”
Nessel’s office filed a request in federal court on Tuesday asking the judge to immediately release Titus and to order a new trial.
“Mr. Titus did not receive a fair trial because this evidence was withheld and justice requires an avenue for dismissal of the case,” Nessel said during a virtual news conference.
She commended the Conviction Integrity Unit for its “hard work in a multi-state, multi-victim investigation which involved the meticulous review of decades of documents.” She added that the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s Office fully cooperated with her team and that Prosecutor Jeff Getting was a “wonderful partner.”
Getting said during the news conference that he didn’t know how the information about Dillon got lost between the original investigation and Titus’ 2002 trial and that it may never be clear what happened. Regardless, he agreed a mistake had been made and that the trial “did not meet the legal standards that are imposed on us as prosecutors and as a criminal justice system.” He said vacating Titus’ conviction was the only remedy.
“I am in agreement with the Attorney General’s conclusion that there was a Brady violation and the request for the conviction to be set aside,” he wrote in a statement to Target 8. “The defendant’s release was part of that request.”
He said he has not yet decided whether he will retry the case. He said a review with a “small group of senior attorneys” would “focus on witness availability, evidence admissibility, and the impact on (the) likelihood of conviction of the additional information that was previously not provided to the prosecution.”
“I will also be discussing the decision and the reasons for it with the victims’ families before commenting publicly,” he added.
The AG’s office said Titus would have access to reentry housing and two years of access to MDOC resources, including job training and placement, transportation, work clothing or tools and vital document assistance.