Prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence implicating another Okaloosa County murderer in the case.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Jimmy Ates, the former Okaloosa County schoolteacher convicted twice of murdering his wife at their Baker home in 1991, has been granted a new trial after the court overturned his conviction for a second time last week.
Court records show Okaloosa County Circuit Judge Michael Flowers granted a motion by Ates’ attorney Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, on Aug. 14. The order granted Ates post-conviction relief, vacated his judgment and sentence and granted him a new trial.
Norma Jean Ates was shot seven times on June 2, 1991 in the couple’s home in Baker. The home was then set on fire.
Ates, now 72 years old, was convicted of his wife’s murder in 1998, but the sentence was vacated and he was released from prison 10 years later after ballistic evidence used to convict him was discredited.
The former Baker High School teacher was released from prison in December 2008 and retried in March 2011, when he was again convicted of first degree premeditated murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and had been held there until Monday when he was moved into the Okaloosa County Jail.
According to court documents, Ates’ defense attorneys successfully argued that prosecutors for the state violated Ates’ rights by failing to provide him with a CD they acquired containing a recorded conversation between two people who purportedly discussed details of his wife’s murder.
According to court documents, the CD contained a recorded conversation between Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office confidential informant Sheila Hahn and her friend Jackie Long, a man who is currently serving four life sentences after being convicted of murders in Okaloosa County and Alabama.
In the conversation, which took place in December 2009, Long reportedly admitted to killing Norma Bates in a “robbery gone bad,” according to transcripts of the recording.
In its ruling overturning Ates’ most recent conviction, the court said it didn’t consider Long’s statements to be an “admission,” but the conversation clearly indicated that there could be alternate or additional suspects in the case.
Long is currently serving life sentences for two separate murder cases. He was convicted in April of this year in the 1981 murder of Leonard “Buddie” Phelps, a Niceville man who died after being severely beaten and shot in the groin area with a shotgun.
Long was also convicted in Alabama in 2014 for a brutal 2005 home invasion where he severely beat the homeowner during an attempt to steal prescription pills. The victim, 61-year-old Henry Jordan, lived for over a year after the attack, which left him blind in one eye and with permanent memory loss. Long was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in that case.
Additionally, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent who has been investigating the case since 1995 testified that he became aware of the recorded conversation in 2013, and his investigation “made him feel that there may have been other people involved in the murder of Norma Ates,” according to court documents.
The court found this month that the CD was withheld from Ates until after his second trial, and that the “suppression of the CD undermines confidence in the outcome of the Defendant’s second trial.”
The case is scheduled for a calendar status date Aug. 22 and a jury trial is scheduled for Sept. 11, though it’s almost certain that it will be postponed.