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Appeals court overturns Ukwuachu sexual assault conviction

Appeals court overturns Ukwuachu sexual assault conviction

Sam Ukwuachu

Sam Ukwuachu leaves the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco last year with his lawyer, William Bratton, after oral arguments in Ukwuachu’s bid for a new sexual assault trial.

Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals reversed Sam Ukwuachu’s 2015 sexual assault conviction on Thursday, ruling prosecutors used “false testimony” and violated the former Baylor University football player’s due process rights.

The three-judge intermediate appellate court reversed the case and awarded Ukwuachu a new trial.

“Because we find that Ukwuachu’s due process rights were violated by the use of false testimony, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for a new trial,” the eight-page ruling written by Chief Justice Tom Gray states.

McLennan County Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham said the DA’s office thinks the 10th Court ruling is “both legally and factually incorrect” and that it will appeal the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision of the 10th Court of Appeals,” Needham said. “We are confident that the decision will be reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We strongly dispute the statements by the 10th Court of Appeals that false testimony of any kind was introduced or used in any way in the Ukwuachu trial.”

Ukwuachu’s sexual assault case has been bouncing from court to court for years, dating to his arrest after a Baylor homecoming party in 2013, to his conviction for sexual assault in 54th State District Court in 2015, to a 10th Court of Appeals conviction reversal in March 2017 to a reversal of that reversal by the Court of Criminal Appeals in June 2018.

The sexual assault convictions of Ukwuachu and former Baylor player Tevin Elliott cast Baylor in a negative spotlight and set the path for the sexual assault scandal that continues to rock the school years later through pending lawsuits.

In reversing the 10th Court’s reversal, the Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to the Waco court to consider other issues it had not addressed when it overturned the conviction on an issue relating to the admissibility of text messages.

The most-recent 10th Court opinion says the court did not address those other issues before deciding to reverse the conviction again, this time on an issue over the use of Ukwuachu’s roommate’s cellphone to track his location at the time of the alleged offense.

Needham said he is disappointed the 10th Court did not address all the points of appeal that were presented to the court.

William Bratton, Ukwuachu’s appellate attorney, said he and Ukwuachu are pleased with the opinion.

“I thought all the points we argued are pretty good points and I am not surprised they reversed this one, too,” Bratton said. “But there are still three more points they haven’t even ruled on, so we will just have to wait to see. But the reversal is the way it should be.”

Bratton bristled at Needham’s comments, saying it was a prosecutor from his office that created the issue.

“That was in black and white in the record,” he said. “If the state is getting irate about it, they need to go back and read the record more carefully. This isn’t something the defense made up. They were way out of bounds on this.”

A 54th State District Court jury convicted Ukwauchu of sexual assault and granted his request for probation. The victim in the case, a freshman athlete at Baylor, testified that Ukwuachu raped her at The Groves apartments on South University Parks Drive after a Baylor homecoming party in November 2013.

Ukwuachu, from Pearland, transferred to Baylor from Boise State University but never played at Baylor. He said he had a consensual sexual encounter with the woman.

The 10th Court reversed the case again on the basis of its belief that the prosecution’s use of the cellphone records created false testimony and violated Ukwuachu’s due process rights.

“The false testimony relates to Ukwuachu’s roommate’s location and whether phone calls were made around the time of the alleged offense,” the opinion states. “The complaint is that the false testimony was created by the way in which the state made use of his roommate’s cell phone records, which were provided to Ukwuachu on the second day of the trial, but which were excluded from evidence.

“Regardless of whether done knowingly or unknowingly, the state’s use of material testimony that is false to obtain a conviction violates a defendant’s right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,” according to the opinion.

The court wrote that based on the time and location data shown by the phone records, the state argued that Ukwuachu’s roommate was across town during the alleged assault rather than in their apartment as the roommate testified.

The alleged victim testified that she screamed during the assault and said the roommate could have heard her if he had been there as he said.

“But the times shown in the phone records were in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which was five hours different from local time,” the court said. “Due to this five-hour difference in time for when the calls were made, Ukwuachu claimed that his roommate’s testimony was not shown to be untrue by the records as argued by the state. The trial court did not allow the admission of the phone records but allowed the state to ask questions about making phone calls.”

The court found that there is a “reasonable likelihood that the false impression affected the judgment of the jury.”

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