Former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu files writ to challenge his sexual assault conviction

Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 7:12 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Former Baylor University football player Sam Ukwuachu, whose 2015 sexual assault conviction brought sharp focus on deficiencies in how the Baptist school handled sexual violence complaints, is challenging his conviction and seeking a new trial.

Ukwuachu, 30, who remains on felony probation, filed a writ of habeas corpus Thursday, alleging prosecutors used unsubstantiated phone records that left a false impression with the jury, abused the grand jury process by intimidating Ukwuachu’s roommate and that Ukwuachu’s attorney, Jonathan Sibley, provided ineffective legal assistance.

While Ukwuachu’s attorney, Bill Bratton, of Dallas, filed the writ Thursday, the McLennan County District Clerk’s office rejected it because of several technical and clerical issues, which Bratton assured Thursday would be corrected and refiled on Friday.

“After 10 years of lying to the public, the state of Texas has finally been exposed,” Ukwuachu said in a text message to KWTX. “They have claimed the phone records showed my roommate was nowhere near my apartment that night. That turned out to be false. They even went as far as to threaten my witness with perjury and prison time. Someone who just wanted to tell the truth. They claimed he was lying about his testimony while knowing exactly what the phone records showed. This was beyond corrupt, it was criminal.”

Ukwuachu, a former defensive end from Pearland, was a freshman All-American at Boise State before transferring to Baylor. He was convicted in August 2015 of sexually assaulting a female soccer player, but continues to profess his innocence and claims the sexual encounter was consensual.

A 54th State District Court jury recommended that Ukwuachu be placed on probation, and Judge Matt Johnson ordered Ukwuachu to serve 180 days in the county jail and perform 400 hours of community service as a condition of probation.

Ukwuachu, who never played a down at Baylor, served 71 days of that term before he was released on an appeal bond. The appeal of his case bounced back and forth between the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for years, with the higher court twice reversing the Waco court’s opinions and sending the case back to resolve other appellate issues that previously were not considered.

The 10th Court finally affirmed Ukwuachu’s conviction in September 2022 and Ukwuachu went back to jail to complete his 180-day jail term.

Judge Johnson is now a justice on the Waco intermediate appellate court but recused himself when Ukwuachu’s case came before the court. Judge Susan Kelly, who succeeded Johnson as 54th State District Court judge, will schedule a hearing to consider Ukwuachu’s writ, court officials said.

Bratton alleges in the writ that prosecutors Robert Moody and Hilary LaBorde violated Ukwuachu’s due process rights by using “unsubstantiated” phone records from Ukwuachu’s former roommate, Ratu Peni Tagive, during cross-examination of Tagive and another Baylor student, Morgan Reed.

The 10th Court ruled that prosecutors improperly used the records, stating that prosecutors’ claims that cell phone records showed Tagive was not at the apartment, as he claimed, when the assault occurred gave the jury a “false impression.” The records were not entered into evidence, and there were issues with determining the accuracy of the time and location where the calls were made, a 10th Court ruling states.

However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that because the phone records were never admitted into evidence and there was no expert testimony to cast doubt on the validity of the records, Ukwuachu can’t prove that prosecutors “actually elicited witness testimony that conflicted with the substance of those records.”

Ukwuachu, therefore, failed to show “falsity that must underlie any false-evidence due process claim,” according to the higher court opinion.

“He points to no specific testimony from any witness that actually left the jury with a false impression,” the court’s ruling states.

Moody, who now is an assistant U.S. Attorney in Louisiana, said, “per U.S. Attorney’s Office policy, I am not authorized to comment.”

LaBorde, now a Coryell County assistant district attorney, did not respond to phone messages from KWTX.

Tagive testified that he was at the apartment the night the woman was there and said he would have heard her screaming, as she testified. His phone records showed he was miles away across town, prosecutors told the jury.

Bratton also alleges that prosecutors abused the grand jury process to intimidate Tagive “as a defense witness by threatening him with charges of aggravated perjury if he were to testify at trial.”

Ukwuachu’s writ also alleges that Sibley failed to effectively represent him by failing to object to the prosecution’s use of the unadmitted phone records and by not requesting a review of Tagive’s grand jury testimony. Sibley also failed to request a continuance of more than part of a day to review the cell phone records, the writ alleges.

Sibley declined comment on Ukwuachu’s writ Thursday.

If Ukwuachu is awarded a new trial, he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted again. As it stands now, he must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.

Baylor officials settled a claim in 2016 from the former soccer player who reported Ukwuachu assaulted her.

Ukwuachu’s conviction, former Baylor football player Tevin Elliott’s sexual assault conviction the previous year and a host of other football players and Baylor students charged with sexual assault brought sharp focus on how Baylor handled those sexual violence allegations and led to the ouster of football coach Art Briles and university president Ken Starr.

Fifteen women who were sexually assaulted while Baylor students reached confidential settlements in their lawsuits against Baylor last week.