A Texas appeals court has again overturned the sexual assault conviction of former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu after judges determined that prosecutors improperly used records from his roommate’s cell phone in his 2015 trial.
The ruling issued Wednesday by the Waco 10th Court of Appeals stated that prosecutors’ claims to the jury that cell phone records showed Ukwuachu’s roommate was not at the apartment, as he claimed, when the alleged incident occurred gave the jury a “false impression.” The records had not been entered into evidence, and there were issues with determining the accuracy of the time and location where the calls were made, the ruling states.
“You need to play fair, and that’s not really fair,” said Ukwuachu’s attorney William A. Bratton, who said Wednesday’s ruling was significant, but there was still a ways to go.
The ruling is the latest decision in a court case that has bounced back and forth for years, and is still likely not settled. An official with the McLennan County District Attorney’s office said Thursday that the office would appeal the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
McLennan County Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham told the Waco Tribune-Herald that 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.
In March 2017, the Waco 10th Court of Appeals — the same court that made Wednesday’s ruling — overturned Ukwuachu’s conviction based on some text messages that judges determined should have been allowed into evidence.
“We respectfully disagree with the decision of the 10th Court of Appeals,” Needham told the newspaper. “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.”
But in June 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 9-0 to reinstate Ukwuachu’s conviction by overturning the lower court’s ruling, writing that the exclusion of the messages was “harmless” to Ukwuachu’s case.
The 10th Court of Appeals decision rendered Wednesday by a three-judge panel stated, regarding the cell phone records, “It was extremely important to the State’s case to put the roommate outside the apartment at the time of the alleged assault.”
Ukwuachu’s roommate and former teammate, Ratu Peni Tagive, testified that he was in the apartment before Ukwuachu returned home the night of the alleged assault, and that he heard Ukwuachu and a woman enter the apartment, and did not hear any sounds or signs of a struggle as the woman described in her testimony.
“The State went to great lengths to discredit Ukwuachu’s roommate’s testimony by showing his location at the time the phone calls were made using records the State could not get admitted into evidence,” the judges wrote.
If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upholds Wednesday’s decision by the 10th Court of Appeals, it sends the case back to McLennan County prosecutors to decide whether to retry the case. The higher court also could overturn the decision again, and send the remaining issues back to the lower court or rule on them itself.
Ukwuachu’s conviction in August 2015 of having sexually assaulted a female Baylor soccer player was, in many ways, the starting point for the series of public revelations about sexual violence at Baylor University.
The former defensive end had been sentenced to 180 days in jail, 10 years’ felony probation and 400 hours of community service, and he had to register as a sex offender.
During the 2015 criminal trial, the former soccer player alleged that Ukwuachu had taken her to his apartment where she tried to resist his advances multiple times before he succeeded in forcing her on her stomach, pushing her head up against a wall and raping her from behind. Ukwuachu said during the trial that he and the woman had consensual sex that evening with him on top and them lying face-to-face on his bed, and that he never forced himself on her.
The woman, who lost her soccer scholarship at Baylor in the wake of the reported assault, reached a financial settlement with the school in December 2015 and transferred to another university.
Ukwuachu’s criminal conviction, which came after a university investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing, garnered intense media attention and public scrutiny, and prompted Baylor to conduct an internal review of its Title IX practices as more women came forward with reports of assaults by athletes.
In May 2016, the school fired football coach Art Briles and demoted former president Kenneth Starr, who would later resign, as would the school’s suspended athletic director, Ian McCaw.