Ex-Teacher's Conviction Overturned in Wife's Death
By MELISSA NELSON
Associated Press Writer
CRESTVIEW, FL (AP) -- A judge overturned a former teacher's murder conviction in the death of his first wife and ordered a new trial Wednesday because of problems with FBI bullet testing.
Judge William Stone's ruling meant Jimmy Ates, 62, of Baker, was likely to spend the first night at home shortly with family in the 10 years since jurors convicted him in the 1991 shooting of his wife, Norma Jean. Convicted of first-degree murder, he has been serving a life sentence at the Jackson Correctional Institute in Malone.
"It's going to be a good Christmas for us," his brother, Luther Ates, said after the hearing.
Luther Ates said a family friend was working with court officials to post the $250,000 bond in hopes of getting him released as early as Wednesday evening.
Jimmy Ates' 14-year-old daughter, Allison, wiped away tears throughout the hearing. She was 3 when her father went to prison and has visited him in prison every Christmas for the past 10 years.
"I just want to see him," she said.
A former high school teacher, Jimmy Ates married Allison's mother, one of his former students, after Norma Jean's death.
It took investigators nearly seven years to piece together evidence before Ates, also a preacher, was charged in 1998.
Prosecutors had accused him of staging a burglary and setting fire to the couple's home, allegedly using a crude timing device to ensure his wife's body was found while he was at a ceremony at the school where he taught. His wife was shot, but the gun was never found.
Ates was convicted, in part, because FBI tests showed lead in bullets that killed Norma Jean Ates matched lead in a box of bullets her husband owned.
But the FBI determined in 2005 such testing wasn't accurate.
The agency stopped matching bullets by lead content and said it would begin reviewing cases and informing law enforcement agencies that had received positive match reports from the FBI Laboratory since 1966 due to problems with the tests.
Seth Miller, an attorney with the Innocence Project of Florida who represented Ates, said the FBI didn't begin sending out letters to defendants in cases involving lead testing until this year. Miller said Ates, once he was notified, acted quickly to have his conviction overturned.
"We know of at least 15 similar cases in Florida," Miller said. He said there are hundreds of other cases in the pipeline nationally.
The mother of Norma Jean Ates, 86-year-old Louise Kotarba, said she doesn't need bullet testing or other evidence to convince her of Jimmy Ates' guilt.
"He knows he's guilty. He knows he was at the house," she said while leaving court Wednesday.
But Spencer Mann, an investigator for the state attorney's office, said retrying Ates won't be easy.
"Witness have moved on. The prosecutors who tried the case the first time are no longer in this office. We are back in the homework phase after 10 years," he said.