KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The state Court of Appeals has ruled that Jeff Titus — the Kalamazoo County man convicted of killing two hunters near his land in November 1990 — is not entitled to a new trial.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic, which believes Titus was wrongfully convicted, vowed on Friday to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
Titus, now 65, is serving life in prison for killing Doug Estes and Jim Bennett in November 1990 in a state game area next to his property.
The original detectives in the case had cleared him.
David Moran, the Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney representing Titus in the appeal, had argued that his original defense attorney failed him during the trial.
The biggest mistake, according to the appeal: That the defense team failed to interview the original detectives.
Moran told Target 8 he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the ruling.
“I find frankly astonishing the Court of Appeals conclusions that Jeff Titus’s trial attorney, who has since been disbarred, was not ineffective in failing to talk to the two veteran homicide detectives who had cleared his client years earlier,” Moran said.
The original detectives cleared him based on alibi witnesses who said he was hunting on their land about 30 miles away at the time.
But a cold-case team picked up the investigation a decade later, without the original detectives and after it was believed that the alibi witnesses both had dementia. The witnesses have since died.
A Kalamazoo County jury convicted Titus in 2002.
It was the original detectives who reached out to the Innocence Clinic.
But the appeals court said, in a 3-0 ruling, that there was no evidence that Titus’s defense attorney should have known that the original detectives believed Titus was not involved.
“Although defense counsel did not interview detective Wiersema and detective Ballet, there is no indication that defense counsel failed to pursue a valid lead,” the appeals court wrote.
It also ruled that the alibi witnesses’ statement was hearsay and wasn’t enough to prove Titus was hunting 30 miles away without sneaking away. It ruled there was no way to determine if their statement was fabricated, voluntary or made in response to leading questions.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic disagrees.
“The Shepards would have confirmed, through their written statement as supplemented by what they told the detectives, that Jeff never left that afternoon and therefore could not have committed the murder some 26 miles away,” Moran said.
Titus is a former U.S. Marine who served from 1971 to 1977 and retired as a sergeant first class, according to military records. In the early 70s, he was assigned to help protect Marine One for President Richard Nixon. He served in the Army National Guard from 1985 to 2001.
At the time of the murders, he was married, had two kids and was working security at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Battle Creek. He had no criminal record.
Moran said he broke the news to Titus in prison.
“He’s determined to continue the fight as well,” he said.