Monday, December 15, 2008

The State Uncharacteristically Admits Wrongdoing in Ates Case

On the heels of Bill Dillon's vacated conviction comes another Florida case about to hopefully see retrial.

Jimmy Ates was convicted in 1998 of killing his wife, Norma Ates. His conviction came seven years after the fact, and after two other prosecutors had refused to take the case because of scant evidence.

Jimmy Ates has been in jail for 10 years. However, on October 31st of this year, the State filed their response to a recent motion by Ates for post-conviction relief. They did something extremely rare, which was to concede two compelling reasons why Ates is entitled to a new trial.

First, the prosecutors at the time relied almost entirely on the analysis of bullet lead found in Ates' home. (The idea being that the bullets that killed his wife matched in elemental composition a batch of bullets that Ates owned, therefore one of his bullets killed his wife, therefore, he killed his wife.) The science behind such analysis has since been abandoned by the FBI, one of its main proponents. Because that testimony, now known to be flawed, was the vital piece of incriminating evidence against Ates, the State agreed that he should receive a new trial. (What the State is left with now is a haphazard patchwork of circumstances that fails to convincingly link Ates to the murder of his wife.)

Magnifying the importance of the metallurgical evidence, then-prosecutor Rod Smith embellished the bullet lead claims until they appeared to be of astounding probative value. In his closing argument, Smith stated,

Of all the millions and billions of bullets that are made by any given company in any given time frame, the bullets that killed Norma Jean were manufactured from the same batch that were found in the box in the back room.

Unfortunately for Smith, the science used at the time has since been discredited, and even the conclusions of the FBI analyst would not have supported a statement as strong as his. Instead, and because of this, his closing argument was misleading and false.

Secondly, the State admitted that a fingerprint lifted from the scene of the crime was not disclosed to the defense during preparations for trial. Even more material to Ates' defense is that the fingerprint did not come from Ates or the victim, or from any of the police officers who could have left their print while investigating the scene, or from two other known suspects.

On top of all this, the FDLE officer who filed the report denied lifting any important prints from the utility room while he was on the stand. We would like to believe that this officer was simply mistaken, that he had not been informed that this particular print came from the utility room, or that he had honestly forgotten since his analysis. Instead, though, we know that the prosecution had tested the print in question against several officers' prints as recently as two weeks before the trial. This leads one to believe that the State did, in fact, know about these prints, and knew they could be a problem for their case. When the FBI analysis came back negative for any matches, they brushed it under the rug.

These both are cogent reasons for Ates to receive a new trial. While the FBI bullet-lead science was contentions at the time, it was widely accepted in courtrooms across the country until recently. We now know it to be bunk. In the case of the mystery fingerprint, it seems to have been purposely concealed by some element of the prosecution. The FDLE officer who took the stand appears to have been either terribly mistaken, or, more likely, lying, when he testified there were no prints of value in the utility room.

While Ates' case represents a sad miscarriage of justice, the miraculous thing about this case is that the State has disclosed its own wrongdoing.

According to an article,

Staff attorney Scott Reagan is reviewing [the State's response]...

Reagan said the prosecutor's request for a new trial is extremely rare and "carries a lot of weight."

Indeed it does, given the adversarial nature of the justice system in which the State in particular is oftentimes most interested in saving face rather than procuring real justice. It's lamentable that this breach of justice occurred in the first place, but refreshing that the State had the moral fortitude to come clean when confronted.

This quote from the end of the State's response is telling:

In the context of the cumulative effect of the errors identified by the defendant, and the circumstantial if not "close" nature of the evidence in this case, no one should be confident in the accuracy of the verdict in this case.

Accordingly, it is the state's belief that the defendant should be granted a new trial. [emphasis added]

We eagerly await the outcome of Ates' hearing on December 17th of this year. Hopefully the State Attorney's office will continue this pattern of behavior, do the right thing, and drop the charges.

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