Reginald Adams was released from prison last week after serving 34 years in prison for murder following Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s admission that two former prosecutors deliberately hid a detailed police report in the 1979 case and two former New Orleans police detectives lied on the stand to help convict Adams twice.
Former detectives Sam Gebbia (now an investigator for St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed) and Martin Venezia (who served five years in a Florida prison for negligent homicide in an unrelated case) testified at Mr. Adams’s first trial in 1983 and again at his retrial in 1990 that no evidence or other suspects were found before Mr. Adams confessed that he killed Cathy Ulfers, the wife of a former New Orleans police officer, for $10,000. But the police report hidden by Ronald Bodenheimer (who became a judge and then went to federal prison for his role in a judicial corruption scandal) and Harold “Tookie” Gilbert Jr. showed that police had found the murder weapon and linked it to another man and his sister some ten months before police took Mr. Adams’s statement.
In a court filing, Cannizzaro conceded that this “manifest intentional prosecutorial misconduct” required Mr. Adams’s release. “We cannot tolerate intentional misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors,” Cannizzaro said. “It is clear to me that Adams did not receive a fair trial.”
Cannizzaro’s office has defended most of the convictions obtained by District Attorney Harry Connick’s office even as courts have found that office repeatedly violated defendants’ constitutional rights. Cannizzaro successfully challenged a $14 million judgment for John Thompson, who narrowly avoided being executed after Connick’s prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 to overturn Juan Smith’s conviction due to yet another Brady violation. But the DA found the evidence of wrongdoing so egregious in this case that he agreed to release Mr. Adams just ten days after defense attorneys presented it.
Without the suppressed police report, Mr. Adams was convicted based on a confession in which he was wrong about a number of basic facts, including the number of shots fired, the type of gun, the time of the crime, and the description of the victim. Detectives gave Mr. Adams drugs and alcohol and interrogated him for more than three hours before he gave the statement.
Mr. Adams was convicted of first-degree murder and faced the death penalty, but the jury sentenced him to life in prison. That conviction was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court. He was retried for second-degree murder and convicted again.
The victim’s husband, Ronald Ulfers, retired from NOPD in 1989 and was sentenced to life in prison for killing his second wife in 1996. The DA’s office said it would refer the case to NOPD’s cold-case division but Cannizzaro commented that “[w]e will never know for certain who killed” the victim.
Mr. Adams, now 61 years old, came home to the Jefferson Parish neighborhood of his 78-year-old mother. He had maintained his innocence during decades at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. “I felt like one day someone would find the truth and they found that,” he told local reporters.