Appeals court overturns Sam Ukwuachu's conviction on sexual assault charges

A Texas appeals court ruled late Wednesday to overturn the sexual assault conviction of former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu and grant him a new trial.

A three-judge panel determined that the trial court should have allowed into evidence a series of text messages between the accuser -- a former Baylor women's soccer player -- and a friend of hers sent immediately before the alleged assault in October 2013.

The judges wrote that the messages concerned past sexual behavior between the woman and Ukwuachu, which he had said indicated her consent to have sex. The actual messages themselves were not included in the ruling.

Ukwuachu's attorney, William Bratton III, released a statement in response to the overturned conviction.

"We are pleased the Court of Appeals reached the decision this morning. My review of the court record showed there was evidence that did not go before the jury that we felt should have been allowed. Specifically the text messages the court referred to in its opinion.

"I believe the outcome of this trial may have been different if that evidence had gone before the jury. This is just the beginning of the appeal process, however. Prosecutors say they will appeal this ruling, which means we have a long way to go before this action is final. If the State appeals, I believe we have other grounds for appeal that will help us if this case proceeds in the process."

Ukwuachu, from Pearland, Texas, was convicted in August 2015 of the sexual assault. The jury recommended that Ukwuachu's sentence be probated, and Texas 54th District Court Judge Matt Johnson sentenced Ukwuachu to 180 days in jail, 10 years of felony probation and 400 hours of community service. Johnson also ordered Ukwuachu to register as a sex offender.

The woman reached a financial settlement with Baylor in December 2015.

A Baylor Title IX investigation had previously cleared Ukwuachu. He was ineligible to play in 2013 because of NCAA transfer rules, and he was suspended in 2014, though Baylor never gave a reason for his suspension. He had been taking graduate classes at the school.

"We're very disappointed to hear the news, mostly because our client has been through so much as it is," the woman's attorney, John Clune, told ESPN on Thursday morning. "But she'll continue to cooperate with whatever the authorities need from her going forward."

Clune said he believes the appeals court's decision was a "bad ruling" and that the woman's text messages were properly excluded from testimony at Ukwuachu's criminal trial.

"They don't show anything having to do with consent," Clune said. "We assume the district attorney's office will appeal this to a higher court."

One option available to the district attorney's office would be to appeal Wednesday's Tenth Court of Appeals ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The woman's father released a statement after the ruling:

"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."

In the ruling Wednesday night, the appeals court judges ruled that the absence of the text messages did not prevent Ukwuachu from presenting the substance of his defense. However, because the woman's consent was the central issue for the jury, the judges wrote that "we cannot say that we have a fair assurance that the erroneous exclusion of the text messages" did not affect the jury's decision.

"The text messages in question started when the victim was letting her friend know that she and Ukwuachu were not coming to a Homecoming party and continued during the time the victim was in Ukwuachu's apartment," the ruling said. "There was a short break in the messages during the time that the victim stated that the offense occurred and resumed almost immediately thereafter, resulting in the message that the State introduced during the victim's testimony, where she texted her friend that Ukwuachu had 'basically raped [her].'

"We find that the text messages were part of an ongoing conversation and that after the State sought to introduce one of the messages, the Rule of Optional Completeness allowed Ukwuachu to inquire into any other part of the same subject, which are the messages in question. The trial court's determination that Rule 107 did not apply was an abuse of discretion and therefore, erroneous."

The judges did not rule on other aspects of Ukwuachu's appeal, including his argument that prosecutors improperly used his roommate's cell-phone records to discredit his roommate's testimony that he was at the residence at the time of the alleged assault and didn't hear the woman screaming, as she had testified.

Ukwuachu couldn't immediately be reached for comment. In a series of emails to ESPN over the past few months, he has maintained his innocence.

In one email from February, Ukwuachu wrote: "Im smart enough to know when ive been screwed over and im smart enough to get to the bottom of things and thats what ive been doing for the past year. in the rules of a trial court procedure if there is false evidence/false testimony presented during a defendants trial and there is any reasonable [likelihood] that the false evidence COULD have had an affect on the judgement of the jury the conviction will be overturned. there is no doubt that false evidence was presented which means that is up to the appeals lawyers for the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the false evidence was harmless."

McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said later in a statement, "After reading the opinion of the 10th Court of Appeals and the 54th District Court record in this case, I have decided to request the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals review this matter further. We will continue the fight on behalf of our victim and her family. While I respect the 10th Court of Appeals, I disagree with their decision and reasoning in this case. I am extremely confident in the decisions made by our prosecutors and the rulings made by Judge Johnson in the trial of this case.

Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor after being dismissed by then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen in 2013. Boise State never gave details as to why Ukwuachu was kicked off the team.

Ukwuachu's former girlfriend testified during his criminal trial that he had struck her and choked her when he attended Boise State.

The case has brought scrutiny to Baylor campus police for the investigation of the allegations against Ukwuachu and to then-football coach Art Briles for allowing Ukwuachu to enroll at the school. A Baylor official testified that the school investigated the woman's complaint but didn't find enough evidence "to move forward."

Ukwuachu's conviction caused former Baylor president Ken Starr to call for an internal investigation of the university's handling of sexual assault allegations by students. The university eventually hired Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton to conduct an independent investigation, and its scathing findings led to Briles' firing, the demotion and then resignation of Starr, and the reprimand and resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw.