DETROIT (AP) — A man was released Friday after serving nearly 21 years in a Michigan prison, freed from a life sentence after state authorities acknowledged that an Ohio serial killer could have been the person who killed two deer hunters in 1990.
“A state of shock,” Jeff Titus, 71, told The Associated Press, moments after walking out of a prison in Coldwater. “Not having handcuffs on or prison blues. I can’t wait to get out and walk in the woods.”
Titus emerged a few hours after a judge threw out his murder convictions under an agreement between the attorney general’s office and the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school.
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 state’s conviction integrity unit said.
Local prosecutors at the time apparently didn’t know about Dillon, either. Attorney General Dana Nessel acknowledged it was “powerful evidence” that might have prevented Titus from being charged.
Titus still could face a second trial, though David Moran of the Innocence Clinic suggested that was very unlikely.
“We believe the case is over,” said Moran, who was present with law students and others when Titus was released.
Prosecutor Jeff Getting agreed that the evidence was “absolutely powerful” but said he needed more time to decide what’s ahead.
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 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 about another police theory of how the victims were killed.
Later, while that appeal was pending, Moran made a 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. It was 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 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. Simpson, too, said she saw the file.
“How that information was not part of the file that was provided to the prosecutor’s office before charges were authorized and then the trial happened — I don’t know whether or not we’ll ever have a good answer,” Getting said.
Davis and Simpson were at the prison when Titus was released Friday.
“I’ve been talking to Jeff on a weekly basis for four years,” Davis said. “To finally meet him in person and give him a hug — you can’t put that moment in words.”
Simpson said her work has played a role in the release of five people from prison.
“The next chapter is all theirs to write,” she said.