A New Orleans man who walked free last year after 34 years in prison filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Monday seeking damages for his decades lost to a murder conviction that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed to dismiss, citing “manifest intentional prosecutorial misconduct.”
Reginald Adams, 62, claims he was one among many victims of a pattern of misconduct under the 30-year tenure of former District Attorney Harry Connick.
The suit names as defendants the city, Cannizzaro, Connick, two ex-New Orleans homicide detectives, former prosecutor and former Jefferson Parish Judge Ronald Bodenheimer and Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s top deputy, Jerry Ursin, an ex-cop who was there for Adams’ discredited confession.
The lawsuit is the latest attempt to convince federal courts to take another look at Connick’s office in the wake of a narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2011 that overturned a potentially crippling $14 million judgment against the DA’s Office.
In that case, the high court found the office, based on a single case, couldn’t be held liable for failing to train prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence. Instead, exonerated death row inmate John Thompson needed to prove a pattern but failed to do so, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion.
The ruling left defense advocates, and some justices, wondering just what the court meant by a pattern. Since then, other Orleans Parish convictions, including that of Adams, have been scrapped on similar grounds.
Monday’s lawsuit chronicles several documented failures over the years by Orleans prosecutors to turn over evidence as required under Brady v. Maryland, a 50-year-old high court ruling.
Adams was set free on May 12, 2014, just 10 days after attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans and former federal prosecutor Michael Magner made the case to Cannizzaro that Adams was railroaded in two trials for the 1979 killing of Cathy Ulfers, a police officer’s wife.
They came armed with a police report, found in unrelated files, that the juries never saw. The report, under the names of homicide detectives Sam Gebbia and Martin Venezia, cited a recovered murder weapon and a trail of evidence that pointed to a different man, Roland Burns, as a suspect in Ulfers’ killing.
Burns, who is now dead, had been found with jewelry from the Ulfers home and was arrested as an accessory to the murder but later was released.
Adams, locked in jail on a separate burglary charge, confessed to the Ulfers murder a year later to Venezia. He got many key facts of the killing wrong, however, and later said he had been plied with drugs and alcohol before confessing.
Venezia and Gebbia testified at Adams’ first trial in 1983 that they had turned up no other suspects in Ulfers’ murder and recovered no weapon. Venezia also testified similarly at Adams’ second trial, in 1990, after the first conviction was overturned because the jury was allowed to take a transcript of the confession into its deliberations.
Ulfers’ husband, Officer Ronald Ulfers, later would be convicted of killing his second wife, Debra. He is now serving a life prison sentence.
In agreeing to release Adams, Cannizzaro suggested that Venezia and Gebbia, along with Bodenheimer and prosecutor Harold “Tookie” Gilbert, who is now dead, conspired to falsely convict Adams through false testimony and by hiding the report.
Ursin and Frank Ruiz, a former investigator for Connick’s office, were there when Venezia wheedled the murder confession from Adams over more than four hours in September 1980.
They had driven Adams to the murder scene near Downman Road, stopping first for beer.
The case against Adams was built on his confession.
“I wasn’t trying to confess to no murder. ... I was high. I didn’t know what I was doing anyway,” he said in an interview last year with The Advocate.
Gebbia wasn’t there for Adams’ confession. He later went on to work as an investigator for St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed.
In a twist in the Adams saga, the federal lawsuit cites an interview this year in which Gebbia cast doubt on the Ulfers investigation to Colin Clark, an assistant attorney general who was reviewing Adams’ claim for money under the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund.
Gebbia, who no longer works for the DA in St. Tammany, “cited a number of facts that made him think (Ronald) Ulfers had committed the murder, including that Mr. Ulfers attended a New Orleans Saints game with another woman on the day of the murder. ... Further, divorce papers were found thereafter in the Ulfers house,” the lawsuit states.
Gebbia also claimed that he got into a physical altercation with Ronald Ulfers, a fellow cop, saying “something along the lines of, ‘Ron, I know you had something to do with your wife’s murder, and I’ll see you behind bars one day.’ ”
He also claimed that Venezia, his partner in the investigation, and Ronald Ulfers “had developed ‘a friend relationship’ throughout the course of the investigation and were ‘chummy.’ Detective Venezia ‘was protective over’ Mr Ulfers,” the lawsuit states.
The Advocate requested all documents related to the Attorney General’s Office’s investigation of Adams’ compensation claim. The agency released hundreds of pages of documents, but none indicating statements from Gebbia. In withholding some documents, the agency cited a legal exemption for records reflecting “the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or theories of an attorney.”
Based on Clark’s review, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office agreed in March that Adams was “factually innocent” and deserving of the state maximum compensation of $250,000.
Venezia, who secured Adams’ confession, repeated a staunch defense of his work in the case on Monday. He said he never believed the gun that an NOPD ballistics expert identified as the murder weapon was, in fact, the one.
Nor, he said, was there any evidence that Ulfers killed his wife. And the arrest of Roland Burns, the man purportedly found with Cathy Ulfers’ jewelry, was a sham meant to satisfy department higher-ups, Venezia said.
“If (Gebbia) suspected Ronnie Ulfers, he committed perjury, not I,” Venezia said. “Flat out, I’m 66, I could die tomorrow. I have zero reason to lie. This particular case, above and beyond all the other cases I handled, was by the book.”
Venezia has said the police report that turned up in a separate burglary file, providing the basis on which Adams was acquitted, was a fabrication.
Bodenheimer, who was convicted years later as part of the federal Operation Wrinkled Robe probe into corruption in the Gretna courthouse, contends that he never saw the report. If he had wanted to hide it, he has said, he would have destroyed it.
Both men are now defendants in the 55-page lawsuit.
The lawsuit doesn’t accuse Cannizzaro’s office of wrongdoing but apparently lists him as a defendant because of his official capacity.
“The district attorney intends to defend the interests of the office,” spokesman Christopher Bowman said.
Adams faces an uphill battle.
One legal expert said he has seen numerous claims against prosecutors for egregious misconduct dismissed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Thompson case.
“There’s no doubt the Supreme Court’s decision has made it much harder to sue prosecutors for constitutional violations,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of California-Irvine.
The Supreme Court made clear that cities can be held liable if there is proof of a “policy or custom” of violating the Constitution, Chemerinsky said. “What’s so unclear is what will be enough” proof, he said.
Chemerinsky recently asked the Supreme Court to hear a similar argument by Earl Truvia and Gregory Bright, who each spent 27 years in prison on a New Orleans murder rap that a judge later overturned. Like others, they claimed that Connick’s office withheld exculpatory material in their cases.
On March 23, the Supreme Court denied their petition.
“I think there was a substantial pattern of misconduct that what was done to them was a part of,” Chemerinsky said. “It’s very hard to get the Supreme Court to take cases.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.