If Jimmy Ates' murder sentence is vacated at a hearing Dec. 17, prosecutors must decide whether to retry the case
November 22, 2008 - 2:55 PM
Jimmy Ates could be a free man by Christmas.Ates, who was sent to prison for life after he was convicted in 1998 of murdering his wife, has been granted a hearing Dec. 17 to determine whether the sentence should be vacated.Okaloosa County Circuit Judge William Stone will be asked to decide whether Ates will get a new trial if the sentence is vacated. It is possible prosecutors won't even opt to try the case again."We don't yet know what we're going to do with this case," said Geoffrey Fleck, the assistant state attorney in the 8th Judicial Circuit who recommended that Ates be retried. "It's going to take an analysis of the availability of witnesses and the strength of the case in light of the passage of time and evidence that may not be available to us any more," Fleck said.The Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing people wrongly convicted of crimes, has agreed to provide legal help to Ates at the hearing."We're hoping he'll be able to walk from the courtroom a free man," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project in Florida.If Stone decides a new trial is in order, Miller said his legal team will seek to obtain a bond for their client.Stone set the hearing Thursday after receiving Fleck's request for a new trial.Ates, a teacher at Baker School, was tried in 1998 for the 1991 murder of Norma Jean Ates. Norma Ates was found on the floor of her burning home. She had been shot several times with a .22-caliber pistol.Prosecutor Rod Smith convinced a jury that Ates had shot his wife, set a delayed reaction fire and hustled over to the school for a baccalaureate event.Fleck requested the new trial after reviewing a motion from Ates to vacate the sentence.Fleck determined that two of the several arguments Ates presented had merit.He noted in his report that in 2005 the FBI had stopped using a type of ballistics testing, known as metallurgy, that prosecutors relied on heavily to convict Ates. The decision to stop using metallurgy analysis was halted "because the science was simply wrong," Fleck said in his report. Ates also claimed in his motion that prosecutors withheld fingerprint evidence he has since obtained.Ates' was able to obtain two reports written by an FDLE analyst which discussed a fingerprint lifted from a utility room in the Ateses' home where the type of bullets presumed to have killed Norma Ates were found. The fingerprint did not belong to Ates, his wife, or the lawmen most likely to have left a print at the crime scene.Prosecutors never made the questionable fingerprint evidence available to Ates' defense team."The evidence now discovered by the defendant suggests some unknown party had access not only to an unlikely area of the Ates residence, its utility room, but to ... the location of the shooter's bullets," Fleck said in his report. Smith, the elected state attorney for the 8th Judicial Circuit, took the case at the request of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. Attorneys in two other judicial circuits, including Northwest Florida's 1st Judicial Circuit, had declined to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence.