Jimmy Ates, twice convicted for wife's murder in Baker in 1991, to be released
After being convicted twice of murdering his wife and having the convictions overturned both times, Jimmy Ates' legal battles are finally coming to an end.
On Thursday, Ates, 74, entered into a plea agreement with the state that ends almost 30 years of investigations and litigation related to the 1991 killing of his wife, Norma Jean Ates. The agreement also stops the prospect of Ates having to stand before jurors for the murder a third time.
Innocence Project of Florida, a nonprofit that works on behalf of the wrongly accused, wrote in a news release that the agreement "did not require Ates to admit guilt and allowed him to, as he always has, maintain his innocence."
In a separate news release Thursday, the State Attorney's Office announced that Ates was sentenced by Okaloosa County Circuit Judge Michael Flowers to 20.33 years in state prison. Ates entered a "no contest" plea to second-degree murder, which essentially means a defendant does not admit guilt to a crime but chooses not to contest the charges against them.
Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said the state's decision to enter into the plea agreement was based on a number of factors, among them the emotional hardship a third trial would cause the victim's family, the issues caused by prosecuting a case "for a third time and after this many years," and changes in how the evidence rules would be applied.
"It was determined it would be in the best interest of both the family and the state to enter a negotiated plea to the second-degree murder charge, which did obviously result in him serving a substantial period of time in prison," Marcille told the Daily News.
Ates, who was first convicted in 1998, has been intermittently released on bond between incarceration and retrials, so the 20-year-sentence amounts roughly to his time served.
Marcille said Thursday there was a processing period before Ates is released from custody, but that if "he's not eligible for release right now, he will be released shortly." Marcille said there are no additional terms such as probation attached to Ates' sentence.
Ates' path to freedom has been long and winding.
Norma Jean Ates was shot multiple times in the couple's home in Baker in June 1991. Her body was discovered when firefighters responded to a blaze at the residence on State Road 189.
Ates was at the Baker High School Baccalaureate when the fire was discovered. However, officials with the State Fire Marshal’s Office testified that the blaze had been intentionally set and a time-delay device had been used, the State Attorney's Office release said. The investigation revealed that before the fire was set, the house was ransacked and items of value were taken from the home.
After a six-year investigation, Ates was arrested in 1997.
He was convicted following a two-week trial in 1998. There was no physical evidence tying him to the scene and witnesses gave conflicting testimony on whether Ates was at home or at school at the time of the murder. However, jurors ultimately returned a guilty verdict.
For almost 10 years, Ates maintained his innocence and fought from prison to have his conviction overturned. In 2008, the Innocence Project of Florida took up his case, and during the appeal process ballistic evidence used to convict Ates was discredited by the FBI and Ates' conviction was overturned.
But Ates was tried again in 2011 and convicted a second time.
The Innocence Project of Florida, led by attorney and Executive Director Seth Miller, took up Ates’ case again in 2014. The organization learned the state had a CD containing a recorded conversation between two people who purportedly discussed details of Norma Jean Ates' murder. That CD was discovered in 2009 but was never turned over to the defense as evidence before Ates’ second trial.
The recorded discussion, held between a confidential informant and a man convicted of murders in Okaloosa County and Alabama, indicated that Norma Ates might have been killed in a "robbery gone bad" and made no mention of Ates being involved.
The discovery resulted in Ates' conviction being overturned a second time in 2018.
Attorneys had been gearing up for a third trial, but the plea agreement means Ates' case is now resolved in the eyes of the court.
Miller stated in a news release that, “Jimmy Ates has maintained his innocence since his wife was murdered in 1991. While there is evidence that squarely points to his innocence, this result allows him to go home immediately and avoid the risk of further uncertainly in the length of these criminal proceedings. We are thrilled that Jimmy will be going home to his family today and wish him the best of luck.”
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.