Earlier this week, Michigan Innocence Clinic client Jeff Titus was exonerated and released after 21 years of wrongful imprisonment.
Titus had been convicted of the double murder of two deer hunters near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The case garnered nationwide attention through the 2020 documentaries The Hunted by Jacinda Davis (an episode of "Killer In Question" on Investigative Discovery) and 16 episodes of the Undisclosed podcast by Susan Simpson.
Titus was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to life without parole for the 1990 murders of the two hunters, despite the fact that two Kalamazoo County sheriff’s deputies cleared him of the crime after confirming that he was some 27 miles away at the time of the crime.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic became involved when the two deputies, Roy Ballett and Bruce Wiersema, called Moran to tell him that the wrong man was in prison for the crime.
A Cold Case Heats Up
Titus immediately came under suspicion because he had a farm adjacent to the part of the state game area where the bodies were found and had a history of confronting hunters who had strayed across the property line onto his farm. But the original police investigators, Wiersema and Ballett, cleared Titus because witnesses placed him 27 miles away on that day.
The case went cold but was reopened in 2000. When key witnesses were no longer able to substantiate Titus’s alibi because of dementia and other memory issues, Titus was arrested. At trial, several people testified that they saw another man who drove into a ditch while trying to leave the area at the time of the killings, yet Titus was convicted.
The Innocence Clinic Gets Involved
The Michigan Innocence Clinic took the case in 2012 and unsuccessfully litigated ineffective assistance claims centering on trial counsel's failure to interview the police investigators who had cleared Titus.
By 2019, the clinic was litigating the case on federal habeas when Davis and Simpson started investigating. They began finding ties between the murders for which Titus had been convicted and a serial killer named Thomas Dillon, who had been convicted of murdering several hunters and outdoorsmen in Ohio around the same time. Dillon pled to five such murders to avoid the death penalty, but he was suspected in several more, including in other states.
Despite substantial evidence—including witnesses who identified Dillon as the man who drove into the ditch shortly after the Kalamazoo County murders—the sheriff had not considered Dillon as a suspect and nothing about him was disclosed to Titus’s defense team.
With this new information, the Michigan Innocence Clinic went to the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which investigated the case for several years before deciding this week to stipulate to unconditional habeas relief on the grounds that evidence favorable to Titus’s defense had been withheld from his legal team. Titus was released from prison.
Alexis Franks, a 3L, is one of the myriad student-attorneys who worked on Titus’s case. She liaised with the CIU, coordinating its video calls with Titus and providing the director with documents and evidence as questions arose.
“I also spoke with Jeff weekly and encouraged him to remain hopeful,” she said. “There are so many obstacles that can arise before someone is officially exonerated, so the moment Jeff was released, I felt a wave of relief and excitement.”
As a student-attorney, Alejandro Montenegro, ’15, worked with his clinic partner, Rebecca Eisenbrey, ’15, on Titus’s habeas petition.
“There were still many unanswered questions, so Becca and I were responsible for re-examining case files from the trial, walking through the crime scene, interviewing witnesses and, of course, visiting Jeff,” said Montenegro.
“There are too many lessons from my experience to count, but something that always stuck with me is how scary it must have been for Jeff and our other clients to trust us with their lives. There is immense responsibility that goes along with that trust, and I won't forget that,” he added.
Established in 2009, the Michigan Innocence Clinic is the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. Since its inception, the Michigan Innocence Clinic has won the release of 40 men and women who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes and served anywhere from a few months to 46 years in prison.
“I’m very grateful for the work of the 36 students assigned to Jeff’s case over the years,” said Moran. “The true heroes in this case are original investigators, Bruce Wiersema and Roy Ballett, who sadly died last year, but his two sons came to see Jeff walk out of prison. And then there’s the amazing team of Jacinda Davis and Susan Simpson. They had an unquenchable thirst for truth and justice, and I could not be more grateful for the work they all did to set Jeff free.”
Caption: Jeff Titus pictured after his release from prison with (far left) Professor David Moran and Naomi Farahan and Olivia Daniels, who worked on Titus’s case as student-attorneys in the Michigan Innocence Clinic.