Former Baylor football player still fighting to clear his name after 2015 sexual assault conviction
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - If the old legal maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” rings true, it might hold particular significance for former Baylor University football player Sam Ukwuachu and the former student who claims he sexually assaulted her.
The defensive end was convicted in August 2015 of sexually assaulting a female soccer player, and the jury in his case recommended that he be placed on probation for 10 years. His trial focused a spotlight on sexual violence issues at Baylor that led to the ouster of football coach Art Briles and university president Ken Starr.
Since then, Ukwuachu’s case has bounced between the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco and the Court of Criminal Appeals, with the higher court twice reversing the Waco court’s opinions and sending the case back to resolve other appellate issues not yet considered.
The Court of Criminal Appeals last remanded the case to the Waco intermediate appellate court in November 2020, with instructions for the three-judge panel to resolve the two remaining legal issues. As the case stands today, Ukwuachu remains a convicted sex offender.
The appeal has been pending in the Waco court for almost two years. This week, 10th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Tom Gray, who authored the previous opinions overturned by the higher court, set the case for oral arguments on Aug. 17.
It will be the third time the Waco court has heard oral arguments in Ukwuachu’s case, while, historically, the court only hears oral arguments in 5 percent of all the cases it reviews, Gray said.
Gray explained he set oral arguments again in Ukwuachu’s case because the makeup of the court has changed over the seven years since Ukwuachu’s conviction.
Former 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson, who presided over Ukwuachu’s trial, has since been elected to the 10th Court of Appeals, but he is recused from hearing Ukwuachu’s appeal. Retired Justice Rex Davis has been appointed to join Gray and Justice Steve Smith to hear the appeal.
With the appeals, the reversals and the remands back to the Waco court, Ukwuachu’s case is the oldest case still unresolved by the 10th Court of Appeals.
“It is in the pipeline and it is getting processed in the normal course of events,” Gray said this week.
The state’s highest criminal court ruled 9-0 in November 2020 that the Waco court erred by concluding the state introduced false testimony through cell phone records to impeach two defense witnesses. The decision reinstated Ukwuachu’s sexual assault conviction.
Ukwuachu maintains that the sexual encounter was consensual.
In reversing the 10th Court decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals said the phone records were not introduced into evidence or made a part of the record.
“Further, no expert testimony was introduced to establish that the state misled the jury regarding any particular information shown in the records,” the opinion states.
Of the six appellate issues initially raised by Ukwuachu’s attorney, William Bratton, of Dallas, two remain. Those include claims the state abused the grand jury process and tried to intimidate a witness and whether extraneous offenses should have been admitted in which Ukwuachu’s former girlfriend in Boise, Idaho, testified he was physically and verbally abusive.
Ukwuach, now 29, said in a telephone interview this week that he is living with his parents in Pearland and “trying to stay active.” He said he is working labor jobs “here and there” and doing some day trading. He said he has been frustrated at how long his appeal is taking.
“You get to the point where you just wait and wait and wait and you just hope that you get a chance to present your case,” Ukwuachu said. “I really didn’t expect to wait this long, but I don’t have any power. It is all up to the judges. All I can do is be patient and work with my lawyer.”
Ukwuachu, who graduated from Baylor with a degree in general studies, said the sexual assault conviction – or at least the accusation – “is always going to be there.”
“I just want to clear my name,” he said. “That is my biggest goal, to clear my name. I especially feel like I have been done wrong by the justice system. My biggest desire is just to clear my name and move on with my life. Wherever God takes me is where I will end up.”
In March 2017, the Waco court overturned Ukwuachu’s conviction and awarded him a new trial. The court ruled the trial court should have allowed into evidence text messages between the woman and a friend sent before the assault in October 2013.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed that decision in June 2018 and sent the case back to the Waco court, which, in turn, reversed it again in June 2019 on the cell phone records issue.
Bratton, Ukwuachu’s attorney who has practiced law 45 years, said this case has remained pending longer than any other in his long career. He said he has never participated in three oral arguments before an appeals court in a single case.
“I told people I ought to retire my appellate career after this one because I have already reversed this case twice before the Court of Appeals, and now I have an option for a third reversal,” Bratton said. “This is unchartered waters now, especially with the delays that came up with the pandemic. It affected the entire criminal justice system across-the-board.”
He said the process has been frustrating for him and Ukwuachu.
“We have been dealing with this for quite a while, and Sam wants to move on with his life,” Bratton said. “Of course, he would like to move on favorably.”
The woman who testified Ukwuachu sexually assaulted her at his apartment subsequently lost her soccer scholarship and reached a confidential settlement in her lawsuit against Baylor.
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