Covering Louisiana

May 13, 2014 8:24 AM by AP

Man's murder conviction reversed 34 years later

The second-degree murder conviction of a man who had spent 34 years behind bars was reversed Monday after a judge agreed with authorities that former prosecutors and detectives withheld evidence that might have acquitted him in the slaying of a police officer's wife.

Judge Laurie A. White released 61-year-old Reginald Adams from the Louisiana State Penitentiary on Monday following a request from Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

Cannizzaro said Adams' attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans had brought him evidence early this month of what he called the shameful handling of the investigation of Cathy Ulfers' slaying.

"To Mr. Adams I offer a sincere apology," Cannizzaro said. "I offer the apology both personally and on behalf of a much different sort of district attorney's office than the office that prosecuted him three decades ago and denied him a fair trial."

Cannizzaro said Ulfers' family is also owed an apology because the misconduct and the three decades since have probably made it impossible to learn who killed Ulfers, whose father and husband were New Orleans police officers.

Cannizzaro said former homicide detectives Martin Venezia and Sam Gebbia investigated the case and it was prosecuted by former assistant district attorneys Harold Gilbert and Ronald Bodenheimer.

Bodenheimer, who went on to become a state district judge, is now in prison after pleading guilty in 2003 to drug conspiracy, mail fraud and mail fraud conspiracy. No telephone listings could be found for Venezia or Gebbia. A call to a possible listing for Gilbert was not immediately returned.

It is too late to try any of them on a charge of perjury or obstruction of justice, Cannizzaro said, because the six-year statute of limitations has long passed since Adams' conviction in 1990.

Also arguing for Adams' freedom Monday was Michael Magner, who prosecuted Bodenheimer as an assistant U.S. attorney and was asked by Innocence Project New Orleans to represent Adams.

Cannizzaro took office in 2009. The district attorney at the time of Adams' conviction was Harry Connick Sr., who retired in 2003 after 30 years in the position. A call Monday to a telephone number listed under Connick's name in Poplarville, Mississippi, was not answered.

Cannizzaro said he is dropping the case against Adams, whose prosecution was based entirely on a confession. He said some of Adams' confession was inconsistent with physical evidence, but he did not elaborate.

Adams, of suburban River Ridge, made the confession while in jail pending trial on an unrelated burglary charge. Cannizzaro said Venezia and Gebbia had heard rumors that Adams killed Ulfers, and Venezia went with one of the burglary investigators to talk to Adams.

Adams claimed he was given alcohol and drugs during a 4½-hour interrogation that followed.

He was ultimately acquitted on the burglary charge.

Cannizzaro said the officers testified and prosecutors argued that police never recovered the murder weapon or any property taken from Ulfers' home, and never identified any other possible suspects.

But Cannizzaro said a police report on the murder investigation showed the gun that killed Ulfers had indeed been found, identified, and traced back to two people, one of whom possessed a piece of jewelry that had been taken from Ulfers' home. Both are now dead.

Cannizzaro said that at the time, one was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property and being an accessory to murder. Prosecutors later dismissed the case against him.

The report about the gun and jewelry was not available to Adams' trial attorneys. It turned up in files about the burglary investigation of Adams, which Bodenheimer and Gilbert also prosecuted, Cannizzaro said.

Cannizzaro said he had to conclude that the prosecutors "were fully aware of the additional suspects ... and that their handling of this case amounts to intentional prosecutorial misconduct."

Magner and Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys Emily Maw and Caroline Milne applauded Cannizzaro for his swift action on the case.

Adams went to his mother's house in suburban Metairie, where he was looking forward to a bath and an oyster po-boy, Maw and Milne said.

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