A man who spent 34 years in prison before Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office abruptly admitted last year that police and prosecutors railroaded him is now pressing for the state to pay him for the years he lost behind bars.
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office is reviewing Reginald Adams’ claim for $330,000, the maximum that exonerated inmates can receive from the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund.
Caldwell’s office has come under criticism from inmate advocates for holding to a strict reading of a state law that says freed convicts must prove they were “factually innocent” to receive any money. By forcing those legitimately exonerated to prove a negative — that they didn’t commit a crime — advocates say Caldwell’s office has contorted a clause meant to bar payouts to inmates freed on mere technicalities.
Caldwell’s office insists that it pays out compensation claims without opposition in “the vast majority” of cases. Whether Adams will face a legal donnybrook over his claim is not yet clear.
Under the law, Adams must show he “did not commit the crime for which he was convicted and incarcerated, nor did he commit any crime based upon the same set of facts used in his original conviction.”
In a 21-page legal filing this month, his attorneys say there’s no doubt Adams was cleared of the 1979 murder of Cathy Ulfers, the wife of a New Orleans police officer, Ronald Ulfers, who is now serving a life prison sentence in the murder of his second wife.
The evidence, they say, clearly points elsewhere.
Adams walked free from a life prison sentence on May 12, just 10 days after his lawyers presented Cannizzaro’s office with a newly discovered investigative report, dated a month after the murder, that pointed to a different man and described the recovery of the suspected murder weapon. That man, Roland Burns, was arrested early in the investigation as an accessory to the murder, then released. He has since died.
The unearthed report turned up in a DA’s Office file on an unrelated burglary, for which Adams was acquitted. Cannizzaro’s office agreed that it contradicted the trial testimony from a pair of New Orleans police detectives that no murder weapon ever was found and that no other suspects were identified in Ulfers’ killing.
The DA also agreed that Adams’ purported jailhouse confession, made a year after Ulfers’ murder, was coerced and phony. Adams has long maintained that he was drugged by detectives. Part of his statement, in which he got numerous details of the killing wrong, came during a drive to the murder scene after detectives stopped for beer, according to court transcripts.
In a case that relied solely on that partially recorded confession, juries in two separate trials, seven years apart, convicted him in the murder at the Ulfers house in New Orleans East.
In a full-throated apology, Cannizzaro said Adams, now 62, was the victim of “manifest intentional prosecutorial misconduct.”
Specifically, he called out the prosecutors at Adams’ first trial: Ronald Bodenheimer and Harold “Tookie” Gilbert, who is now dead. Bodenheimer went on to become a judge and then landed in federal prison for his role in a judicial corruption scandal that rocked the Jefferson Parish courthouse.
The DA also placed blame at the feet of then-NOPD homicide detectives Martin Venezia and Sam Gebbia, the named authors of the report. The DA suggested a coordinated bid to scuttle Adams’ defense.
“We cannot tolerate intentional misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors. It is clear to me that Adams did not receive a fair trial,” Cannizzaro said on the day Adams walked free.
Gebbia later went to work for former 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed’s office. He was among three holdovers who were handed pink slips last week by new DA Warren Montgomery.
Venezia was fired from the NOPD after getting into a shoot-out with his son and later spent 50 months in the Florida prison system on a negligent homicide conviction.
After Adams’ release last year, Bodenheimer and Venezia came out swinging, dismissing the newly found report as a fraud and saying Cannizzaro jumped the gun in releasing Adams.
Venezia said he never wrote the report, while pointing to numerous errors in it. Bodenheimer said he never saw it and that if he had meant to hide it, he would have dropped it in the trash instead of tucking it in another case file.
Both men complained that their sullied reputations had been hijacked to secure Adams’ faulty release.
“It’s a total f****** fabrication,” Venezia said in an interview last year. “Cathy Ulfers is slaughtered by this guy, and he’s now considered a hero? That’s horrible.”
Adams won his release with help from the Innocence Project New Orleans and attorney Michael Magner, who as a federal prosecutor tried Bodenheimer in the Operation Wrinkled Robe case.
Noting Cannizzaro’s decisive statements, they argue that Adams is clearly entitled to the $25,000 per year of false incarceration that the state law allows, with a cap of $250,000. They say he also deserves another $80,000 for job training, medical costs and “the loss of life opportunities” from his decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
They claim, in fact, that he deserves much more.
“Reginald Adams is asking the state to compensate him for the 34 long, terrible years he spent wrongfully imprisoned at Angola,” said IPNO attorney Caroline Milne in a statement. “Unfortunately for Mr. Adams, and the many other Louisiana exonerees who were wrongly imprisoned for more than 10 years, the state arbitrarily caps the number of years he can be compensated for at 10. So, he will not see any sort of compensation for the last 24 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.”
Milne called it a case study in why lawmakers should lift the $250,000 cap.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office declined to weigh in on Adams’ claim of “factual innocence,” referring questions to Caldwell’s office.
Adams now lives with his mother by the railroad tracks in Kenner.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.