Judge releases man in 1990 slayings of 2 Michigan hunter

A man was released from a Michigan prison Friday after nearly 21 years, 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 is 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.