On October 7, 1979, 24-year-old Cathy Ulfers was shot to death when she apparently interrupted a burglary in her home in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Although her husband, New Orleans Police Officer Ronald Ulfers was considered a suspect, the crime went unsolved. There were no fingerprints and no eyewitnesses.
In February 1980, an informant told New Orleans Detective Martin Venezia that there were rumors on the street that 26-year-old Reginald Adams and a man named John Dupart had a role in the crime. However, Venezia was unable to confirm the tip as anything more than a false rumor.
In September 1980, Adams was arrested on an unrelated burglary charge and was being held in the New Orleans jail. Because police pressured members of his family to incriminate him, Adams asked to speak Frank Ruiz, the detective on his case. Ruiz was aware that Venezia had pursued the rumor about Adams committing the Ulfers murder, so Ruiz brought Venezia to the meeting with Adams.
As a result, Ruiz and Venezia questioned Adams about the Ulfers case. After nearly five hours of interrogation, the detectives said that Adams confessed to the crime on audio tape and implicated Dupart and another man, Anthony Calcagno. All three were charged with first degree murder committed during the course of a burglary.
However, in 1981, the charges against Calcagno and Dupart were dismissed for lack of evidence. Adams went on trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in 1982, but a mistrial was declared because the jurors overheard a comment by the trial judge that they were not supposed to hear. A second trial was halted in January 1983 when Adams’ lawyer asked for a hearing to determine if his client was competent to stand trial.
Adams went on trial a third time in 1983. Ruiz and Venezia testified that Adams first said that he and Dupart burglarized the home and that the murder was a contract killing orchestrated by Calcagno. Police said Adams changed that account to say that Calcagno had set up the burglary and that Ulfers came home while he and Dupart were in the home. The detectives also testified that no murder weapon was discovered and that no objects taken in the burglary had been recovered.
This testimony was false. The detectives and the prosecutors in the case, Ronald Bodenheimer and Harold J. Gilbert Jr., deliberately concealed critical information that pointed to other suspects who had no connection to Adams.
In fact, Venezia and Ruiz recovered the murder weapon within a month after the crime—and nearly a year before detectives obtained Adams’ confession. The gun was matched to the bullets that killed Ulfers and was traced to two people, Roland Burns and his sister, Alice Burns, who had no connection to Adams. Two witnesses told the detectives that two days after the murder, Roland Burns tried to sell them a ring identical to one stolen from the Ulfers home. The detectives found evidence that Alice Burns had access to the gun the day before the murder and that on the day of the murder she was staying at a motel 2.5 miles from the Ulfers home.
The motel manager told the detectives that on the morning after the murder, Alice Burns departed in such a hurry that she left all of her belongings behind. In October 1979, Roland Burns was arrested and had a bracelet in his pocket. On November 5, 1979, Ronald Ulfers identified the bracelet as his wife's. On the recommendation of the Orleans District Attorney's Office, Burns was charged with accessory to first degree murder and possession of stolen property. But on November 16, 1979, when the formal charges were filed, Burns was only charged with possession of stolen property. Two months later, on December 17, 1979, the case against Roland Burns was dismissed by the prosecution. The police reports linking him to Ulfers' case were never disclosed to Adams' attorneys. Alice Burns was never located by police.
Adams took the witness stand in his own defense and denied involvement in the crime. The defense noted that there were inconsistencies between the facts and the confession. Adams first said the victim was male and that he entered the home through a rear door, although Ulfers was female and entry was through the front door. Adams' initial statement misstated what was stolen from the house, the day of the crime, the time of the crime and that his gun was a .38 caliber pistol when the bullets that killed Ulfers were .32-caliber. In addition, the transcript of the interrogation showed that Adams said he shot Ulfers four times, although she had actually been shot seven times. These inconsistencies were corrected in a second statement that detectives recorded after they took Adams out of the jail cell to the scene of the crime and brought him back to the jail.
Adams told the jury that the detectives gave him drugs and alcohol, fed him details of the crime and promised that he would be released if he confessed and implicated Calcagno and Dupart. The defense tried to call Calcagno as a witness because he allegedly had admitted that he took part in the crime but Adams did not. When Calcagno asserted his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself and refused to testify, the defense attempted to call two other witnesses to testify that Calcagno had made that admission to them, but the trial judge refused to admit the testimony.
In August 1983, the jury convicted Adams of first-degree murder committed during a burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In 1989, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the judge had erroneously allowed copies of Adams’ confession to go into the jury room.
In July 1990 Adams went on trial for the Ulfers' murder for the fourth time. The prosecution had reduced the charge to second degree murder. Adams was convicted again, largely on the basis of his confession, by a jury verdict of 10-2 and he was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2006, Cathy Ulfers’ husband, Ronald, who had retired as a police officer in 1989, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering his second wife, Debra, whose body was found floating face-down in the canal behind their home in 1996.
In 2013, lawyers at the Innocence Project New Orleans began re-investigating Adams’ case and discovered the documents showing that the murder weapon had been recovered and linked to Roland and Alice Burns. These documents showed that the testimony by Venezia and Ruiz that neither the murder weapon nor any of the stolen property was ever located was false. The documents also revealed that the prosecution had knowingly told Adams' defense attorneys that no evidence was ever recovered and that no forensic examination, including ballistics testing, had been conducted.
On May 2, 2014, the lawyers contacted Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to inform him of their discovery. Just 10 days later, on May 12, 2014, Cannizzaro and Innocence Project New Orleans lawyers filed a joint motion to vacate Adams’ conviction. The judge granted the motion, the charge was immediately dismissed and Adams was released.
“I will not tolerate intentional misconduct on the part of police or prosecutors,” Cannizzaro said in a statement that apologized to Adams for an unfair trial and an unjust conviction. Cannizzaro said the prosecutors’ handling of the case was “shameful. Not only did their intentional acts harm Reginald Adams, who was wrongfully incarcerated for more than three decades, but also it denied this community any opportunity to hold the real perpetrator criminally responsible for this violent crime.”
In 1999, Bodenheimer was elected judge in Jefferson Parish. In 2003, he pled guilty to federal corruption charges and was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
In March 2015, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office said it found in its own investigation that Adams was “factually innocent.” As a result, Caldwell’s office agreed that Adams wouldreceive $250,000 over 10 years — the maximum allowed under the law governing the state’s Innocence Compensation Fund. Adams also was eligible for another $80,000 to compensate him for “lost life opportunities.”
In May 2015, Adams filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New Orleans, the New Orleans police department and the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office.
– Maurice Possley