A year after winning freedom, exonerated New Orleans resident Reginald Adams sues DA’s Office, detectives, prosecutors _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Reginald Adams sits with his mother Antoinette Scott at their home in Kenner, La. Saturday, May 17, 2014. Adams was freed from prison thanks in part to the Innocence Project on Monday after 34 years for a murder Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro says Adams did not commit and Cannizzaro acknowledged egregious, intentional misconduct at Adams' murder trials in 1983 and 1990.

New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro was most gracious when Reginald Adams was cleared and released from Angola in 2015.

There was no hedging from Cannizzaro, who allowed that the antics of police and prosecutors who secured Adams' murder conviction had been “shameful.” Not only had Adams been “wrongfully incarcerated for more than three decades,” Cannizzaro declared, but “intentional prosecutorial misconduct” had “denied this community any opportunity to hold the real perpetrator criminally responsible for this violent crime.”

A judge ordered Adams' release at the joint request of defense attorneys and Cannizzaro, who then apologized on behalf of “a much different office than the office that prosecuted you.”

You know, of course, what he meant. When Harry Connick was DA, it was abracadabra, and evidence favorable to the defense would disappear just like that. Adams was released after his attorneys discovered ancient files that would have made his conviction impossible.

When Cannizzaro apologized, he might as well have held up a “Sue Me” sign. Adams duly sought damages from the DA's office, the city, cops and prosecutors, who saw no point in going to trial. The settlement they reached with Adams has now been placed under seal, prompting the Fourth Estate to wheel out the lawyers and make what seems the self-evident point that taxpayers are entitled to know how much they are paying on account of their officials' misdeeds.

Cannizzaro seems to have regretted the extravagance of his apology, suggesting in a deposition that Adams may after all have fired the shots that killed Cathy Ulfers, wife of NOPD officer Ronald, in 1979.

That was never going to wash. Not only had Cannizzaro himself declared that the real killer had gotten away with it, but the consent judgment he signed stipulated that Adams was “factually innocent.” He had to be in order to receive compensation from the state, and Attorney General Jeff Landry had concluded that he was indeed entitled to the maximum allowed, $250,000 to be paid over 10 years.

That is hardly adequate for an innocent man who has been locked up so long, and justice clearly required that Adams get more. The same applied to John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row after being railroaded by Connick's office and won $14 million in court. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the award in 2011, however, ruling that Thompson's attorneys had failed to adduce evidence that the constitutional violations leading to his conviction were part of a “pattern” at Connick's office.

Adams' attorneys took the cue in preparing their lawsuit, which reels off a long list of convicts exonerated when dirty tricks of the Connick era came to light.

How it is possible to sleep after framing defendants is a question that has been on many minds for years around here. It has always been hard to believe that police and prosecutors would conspire to convict defendants they knew to be innocent. Surely zealous law enforcers were so convinced they had the right man that they felt justice would be served if they cut a few corners, even in capital cases.

Their conscience should still have kept them awake, but any other explanation seemed too evil to contemplate. This time, however, detectives who worked the case and the prosecutors who got Adams convicted in two trials must have had severe doubts.

Adams was convicted solely on the strength of a confession he later claimed had been coerced with the aid of drugs and alcohol over several hours. That confession, which Cannizzaro was to characterize as “compelling” in his deposition, was riddled with errors; Adams was wrong about what kind of gun had been used to kill Cathy Ulfers, and the number of times she had been shot. He said she was 5'10” and dark-haired, when she was blonde and 5'6.” He got the time wrong, claimed to have broken in through a back door, which did not exist, and confessed to stealing stuff that wasn't missing.

Police reports concealed from the defense would have shown detectives lied when they said that Adams had been the only suspect and that neither the murder weapon nor property stolen from the Ulfers' house had been found. In fact, it had all been recovered from other suspects who were let go.

While Adams is now out of prison, Ronald Ulfers is inside. He was convicted of murdering his second wife in 1996. Maybe the killer of his first one isn't at large after all.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.