The 1993 sexual molestation conviction of a former Buffalo public school teacher and Nigerian army officer has been overturned, officials said Tuesday.
Dominic Emeka Okongwu has been behind bars since he was convicted of sexually molesting twin Nigerian-born foster girls.
In a unanimous ruling, the five-judge Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Rochester vacated his conviction. The judges ordered Okongwu, 55, an inmate at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, returned to Buffalo "for further proceedings on the indictment."
The Rochester court agreed with Michael J. Stachowski, the attorney it appointed to handle the appeal, that Okongwu had been denied effective legal counsel at the jury trial. He was the last of three suspects in the case still behind bars.
Stachowski, who argued the appeal on Jan. 21, said he is awaiting word from the Erie County district attorney's office on its next move.
Donna A. Milling, chief of the DA's Appeals Bureau, said "no decision has been made yet" on whether the bureau will ask the state Court of Appeals in Albany to look at the case or will just have Okongwu brought back here for further court proceedings.
According to court officials, Stachowski was appointed to the case after a group of Nigerians in Western New York ran out of funds in getting both Joy Wosu and Louis Eze, the other two defendants, exonerated and released from prison.
After a jury trial before now-retired State Supreme Court Justice Rose LaMendola, Okongwu and his two cousins were convicted Nov. 26, 1993, of sexually assaulting the girls, then 7, on Thanksgiving Day 1991 in Okongwu's Debra Lane home in Buffalo.
Okongwu and Wosu were also convicted of sexually assaulting the girls in June and September 1991. Okongwu was sentenced to up to 50 years in prison on his conviction on 66 counts of rape, sodomy and child endangerment.
The two victims, who still live in the Buffalo area and are in their mid-20s, were the daughters of a woman who had to return to Nigeria for medical reasons after they were born here, forcing their placement in a Buffalo foster home.
Okongwu maintained contact with them because of his longtime links to their birth family. The girls' foster mother contacted authorities after she reportedly discovered them imitating a sex act that she said they explained was what Okongwu "does to us."
A judge ordered Eze's release in 2003; prosecutors opted not to retry him. In October, Wosu was freed after a judge dismissed her indictment.