A Texas appeals court has overturned the sexual assault conviction of former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu—whose 2015 criminal case began a process that ultimately ended with Baylor admitting it had for years made the lives of students who reported they were raped a living hell. Ukwuachu was found guilty by a Waco jury, who suggested a punishment of eight years probation. District Court Judge Matt Johnson then increased the punishment to include 180 days in jail, the maximum he was allowed to, while upping the probation to 10 years.
In its ruling, the judges with the 10th Circuit of Appeals write that they were overturning based solely on one issue—text messages that were not admitted into evidence at trial. At trial, Johnson excluded text messages sent between the woman and a friend of hers before she said Ukwuachu raped her. In his appeal, Ukwuachu’s lawyers argued that they should have been included in the trial. The three-judge panel sided with Ukwuachu.
However, our review of the messages in question demonstrates that the probative value of the messages outweighed any unfair prejudice. The messages were probative on the issue of consent and were not particularly graphic nor did they paint the victim in a negative light. We find that Ukwuachu met his burden to demonstrate that the probative value outweighed the danger of unfair prejudice, and the trial court abused its discretion in finding otherwise.
.... We find that because consent was the central issue in the proceeding, we cannot say that we have a fair assurance that the erroneous exclusion of the text messages did not affect the outcome of this proceeding, especially when considered with the other alleged errors in the trial of this cause. We sustain issue six.
Having found that the exclusion of the text messages was erroneous and their exclusion harmed Ukwuachu, we reverse the judgment of conviction and remand this proceeding for a new trial.
The judges overruled one of Ukwuachu’s other claims, that his indictment was “facially insufficient,” and did not rule on the rest of the issues he raised.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said he would fight the appellate decision and stood by the previous court conviction. His statement, via the Dallas Morning News, said, “We will continue to fight on behalf of our victim and her family.”
The full opinion is below.
Update (8:23 p.m.): The woman’s father released a statement on the overturned conviction. Here it is, via the Morning News.
As the father of a child whose life has been so deeply impacted by this crime, I am disheartened to read this court’s order. What upsets me the most is that now there will be those who will waiver in their belief in the validity of the outcome of this trial and in my daughter. The truth and all of the facts that supported this verdict will be filtered now through this appeal court’s statement alluding to there being “potential” sexual history.
Said another way, the order implies that even the mere suggestion of prior sexual contact equals consent for future encounters. While this philosophy is not the law, that is the message that will linger. So, I believe yesterday’s decision of the appeals court enables this subtle “victim blaming” to drive a false narrative, further harming someone who bravely stood up to a person to whom she never consented. We remain grateful for the continued efforts of the district attorney to fight these harmful narratives that fuel the culture of sexual violence.