James Gill: Bungled case leaves only one smiling

When a railroaded convict is released after 34 years in prison, it might seem a little odd to congratulate prosecutors for the speed with which justice was finally done.

Reginald Adams’ two murder trials may have been the most flagrant stitch-up ever perpetrated in the 30 years Harry Connick spent as New Orleans DA. Sure, that’s a bold claim, but it required two thoroughly unscrupulous prosecutors, and two policemen telling whoppers from the stand, to send Adams down.

The evidence proving that was not presented to current DA Leon Cannizzaro until May 2. Ten days later, Judge Laurie White told Adams he was free to go.

DAs are not generally eager to see convictions overturned, even when their predecessors broke the rules to secure them. And Cannizzaro is not one to throw in the towel just because Connick’s assistants were up to their old tricks. Indeed, he came in for a lot of flak from the United States Supreme Court a couple of years ago when he urged that Juan Smith’s 1995 quintuple murder conviction be upheld even though exculpatory evidence had been withheld at trial.

Smith now awaits retrial in that case, having also been found guilty of a triple murder committed the same year. He seems certain to die in prison.

A similar fate appeared to await Adams for the 1979 murder of New Orleans policeman Ronald Ulfers’ wife Cathy. But once some more Connick-era stunts came to light in his case, Adams was out lickety split. Those stunts were so outrageous that Cannizzaro could not have prevented Adams’ release, although he could have filed motions to delay it, as a dog-in-the-manger DA might have done. If it was fair to take Cannizzaro to task over Smith, give him a little credit for Adams.

Adams’ attorneys, Michael Magner and the New Orleans Innocence Project, did not go public with their findings but set them out in a 15-page memorandum to Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro’s office promptly verified what was in the memo, and White gave her blessing before anyone knew a deal was in the works. Justice is supposed to be the common goal of the system, but it is rare for a co-operative effort to deliver it so swiftly.

After Cathy Ulfers was found dead with seven bullet wounds, detectives did some pretty impressive sleuthing. Ballistics tests revealed she had been shot with an unusual gun — a seven-shot, .32-caliber revolver of German make. Within three weeks detectives, after finding the gun and some jewelry missing from the Ulfers home, booked Roland Burns, who did not know Adams, with possession of stolen property and as an accessory to murder.

Connick’s office nol prossed what Adams’ attorneys call the “pretty strong case against” Burns without explaining the reason.

A few months later, Adams was arrested along with two other men for a burglary at Al Scramuzza’s Seafood City. While awaiting trial, Adams was approached by a couple of jailhouse snitches, who told him detectives Martin Venezia and Sam Gebbia wanted to question him about the Ulfers murder. In the dead of night after hours of questioning and, he claimed, a generous supply of beer and Valium, he admitted shooting a dark-haired male, 5-foot-10, four or five times with a .38. Cathy Ulfers was a 5-foot-6 blonde. Adams couldn’t get a single detail about the murder scene right, but, after some prodding from Venezia, he did change the gender of his purported victim, and Connick assistants Tookie Gilbert and Ronnie Bodenheimer prepared for trial on the strength of the confession.

First, though, Gilbert and Bodenheimer put Adams on trial for the burglary. This is another old Connick trick — a conviction for another crime will limit the defense’s options at trial — but it misfired this time. Adams was acquitted. He was then found guilty of the murder and imprisoned for life in 1983 on a 10-2 vote.

If it is hard to understand how two juries — Adams was retried and reconvicted in 1990 — could find a defendant guilty on such flimsy evidence — it is impossible to believe they would have done so had they known the facts. Venezia and Gebbia swore no murder weapon or stolen jewelry had been found, while Gilbert and Bodenheimer squirreled away the police report that made liars of them. It sat in the Seafood City and Burns files until Adams’ lawyers found it last year.

Now, Ronald Ulfers is doing life for murdering a subsequent wife, Gilbert is dead, Bodenheimer is in perpetual disgrace as a state judge turned federal convict, Venezia has done five years in Florida for negligent homicide and Gebbia’s perjury will presumably cost him his job as an investigator for St. Tammany DA Walter Reed. Adams is the only one left smiling.

CORRECTION: Cynthia Samuel, who precipitated the indictment of juvenile judge Yolanda King for falsely claiming to live in New Orleans, disputes media reports that the recipients of her complaint included the state Judiciary Commission. Samuel, who lost in the primary, says someone else alerted the commission.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.