A week before Christmas in 1992, Buffalo police rounded up three suspects. They handcuffed a machine operator at Rich Products on Niagara Street, a chemist working his second job at a downtown hotel, and later a federal employee living near City Hall. ¶ The three were named in an appalling crime.
Two 8-year-old girls, twin daughters of the machine operator, said their father raped them on three occasions during the previous year – when they were 6 and 7 – and the other defendants joined in the assaults. ¶ The girls said they had been tied to mattresses or chairs, then violated as their mouths were sealed with duct tape. Afterward, life would go on as normal. ¶ Prosecutors could offer no scientific proof and only dubious physical evidence of rape and molestation. But they had the girls’ statements.
As the suspects fought the charges and rejected plea deals, prosecutors placed the sympathetic victims in front of the jury. The verdict: guilty on all counts. ¶ The years passed, and the three convicted sex offenders refused to back down. From prison cells they filed appeal after appeal. All were long shots. But the three insisted they were innocent. ¶ As it turns out, they were.
That’s not simply because appellate judges eventually agreed that the three had been poorly represented and deserved new trials. Nor is it because prosecutors never tried them again, nor because their indictments were sealed forever as the former inmates started new lives.
It’s because, as the twins now say, no crime occurred. They are now 30 years old and working in Buffalo’s health care field. In legal papers, both say the allegations were never true.
The women state that when they were compliant children, the officials leaped to the wrong conclusions, and county prosecutors coached them through false testimony. Through numerous pretrial rehearsals, they were rewarded when they did well and admonished when they didn’t.
“The prosecutors would tell us what to say,” the women say in one of their affidavits. When they tried to retract the claims, either no one would listen or they were told bad things would happen, they said. As children in an adult world, they could not stop the train rumbling toward convictions.
It’s common for lawyers on both sides to prepare their witnesses. But this case was a miscarriage of justice, said Michael Stachowski, a lawyer who argued one of the successful appeals in 2010. The defense team performed badly, he said, and prosecutors went too far.
In that era, sex crimes against children were exploding onto the national stage, and the public expected action. Rape, incest and child abuse ranked just behind murder in a survey of the most heinous crimes.
At the same time, the forensic interviewing of young victims was faulty and corruptible. An adult’s tone and expectations could, and did, taint the outcome. In California’s McMartin Preschool trials, the authorities led children to tell of satanic ritualistic abuse that never happened.
Forensic interviews with young children have improved since the 1980s and ’90s, to avoid repeating those past mistakes. But if the exact circumstances were roiling today, the twins still would have a tough time correcting the false belief that they had been abused.
They would be met with a mix of concern and doubt, because when children “recant,” officials assume a desperate adult has pressured them to change their story.
Exonerated, no compensation
The defendants were natives of Nigeria who arrived in Buffalo while in their 20s and 30s and hoped to live comfortable lives after going to college and landing good jobs.
Louis Eze – pronounced Ezz-a – earned degrees in chemistry and forensic science from Buffalo State College. He had not planned to spend nine years in a maximum security prison, where child abusers sink to the bottom of the social order. Eze was the first to have his conviction overturned, in 2003.
Joy Wosu won her appeal six years later. She had been a teacher in Detroit before taking a Veterans Affairs job in Buffalo. She joined the spiritual choir at Albion prison as a way to cope with her ordeal, and returned to Detroit when freed. Today she is a counselor there.
Emeka Dominic Okongwu, the twins’ father, had earned an MBA. He won the right to a new trial in 2010. Eighteen months later, the district attorney dropped all charges. Of the three, Okongwu spent the most time in captivity — 19 years from the moment police clicked on the handcuffs at Rich Products in 1992.
Their convictions and subsequent exonerations drew little public attention. Eze, Wosu and Okongwu never became household names, unlike, say, Anthony Capozzi or Lynn DeJac.
Capozzi, Buffalo’s best-known exoneree, was a wanderer with schizophrenia when found guilty in 1986 for a pair of rapes he did not commit. He was freed in 2007 when DNA evidence led to the conviction of a serial rapist instead.
DeJac, who served 14 years in the death of her long-neglected daughter, also was freed in 2007 because newfound DNA evidence implicated someone else.
Capozzi and DeJac, who died in 2014, spent a total of 36 years behind bars for their wrongful convictions and together won nearly $7 million in compensation.
Together, Okongwu, Eze and Wosu served more than 40 years. But they have not received a dime, and it appears doubtful they ever will.
A state law passed in 1984 makes it easier for wrongly convicted people to seek compensation for years of imprisonment. The Legislature agreed that innocent people convicted on the basis of fraud, misrepresentation or false evidence should be allowed compensation, and they should be compensated if new evidence, such as DNA, leads to their exoneration.
Convictions overturned on the basis of ineffective counsel do not qualify for compensation under the state law. Though the daughters now say their statements were untrue, that’s not how Okongwu, Wosu and Eze won their appeals. Lawsuits from all three have been rejected in the Court of Claims.
Dominic Okongwu has turned to the federal courts. He filed a complaint in October seeking millions of dollars from the county and Buffalo police, but he couldn’t find a lawyer to take his case. He represents himself.
At the center of it all
The man prosecutors were after says he has never broken the law. You can see in Dominic Okongwu the strict bearing of the Nigerian Army officer that he was when he fought in the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, in the late 1960s.
He’s not a large man, but he speaks with a deep voice that serves him well in his church choir. At 64, Okongwu is no longer apple-cheeked and vibrant. He tries to dress sharp on limited means, but he often looks weary.
Okongwu’s English is excellent, but a thick accent makes him difficult to understand. When he worked as a teachers’ assistant in prison, he was amazed at the poor math skills he saw. He says some of his inmate-students came to like him and would protect him. “Africa,” they would call him. Other inmates would call him “Rape-O.”
As Okongwu tells his story, his face pinches, like he bit into a lemon, at the thought of anyone molesting children, especially their own children. He then becomes angry about the parade of lawyers who suggested he take a plea, either for the initial trial or for the retrial that never occurred. Like his co-defendants, he refused each time.
“You are a stubborn man,” one lawyer told him, according to Okongwu.
“Yes,” he responded. “I am stubborn for my innocence.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo, then a master’s in business administration from the University of New Haven, Conn., in 1984. That year, his twin daughters were born prematurely in Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. When their mother’s bad health forced her back to Nigeria and the care of her family, it fell to Okongwu to raise young Chendo and Nnedi – pronounced Ned-E – and earn a living.
He says he spent most of his time working to support them – during the day as a substitute teacher in the Buffalo school system and in the evening at Rich Products.
He left the children during the week with a sitter, and the girls came to know the sitter and her boyfriend better than they knew their father.
The arrangement that caused Okongwu to be a distant father in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the wrongful convictions of him and his co-defendants late in 1993 – because when prosecutors first heard the allegations of rape, they soon learned Dominic Okongwu had a history.
The first case of abuse
In 1988, when the girls were still 3, their father was suspected of abusing them. Their hymens were examined and deemed atypical for toddlers. The abnormalities, which included scarring on one child, could mean they were abused, doctors said. But suspicions shifted from Okongwu to the sitter’s boyfriend, a man later convicted of stabbing a woman to death.
“There really was a legitimate reason to lay it upon him,” attorney Paul V. Hurley, a former prosecutor, said of the boyfriend.
Hurley, now retired, represented Okongwu in the matter at the request of local Nigerians and people from Okongwu’s Catholic church at the time, the Newman Center at Buffalo State College.
No one was convicted of sexual abuse. But Family Court Judge John J. Honan found Okongwu guilty of neglect for boarding out the twins five or six days of the week.
While county lawyers continued to suspect Okongwu, he was forced to attend counseling and to learn better parenting skills. His daughters were placed in foster care – in the bungalow-style home of Ollie McNair on Poultney Avenue, near East Amherst Street, in Buffalo. On weekends, holidays and on the girls’ birthday, their father could take them to his apartment on Debra Lane in North Buffalo. But the visits had to be supervised throughout.
To oversee the visits, the court entrusted Louis Eze. He was a cousin of Okongwu and also from Nigeria’s Igbo region. Eze had lived with Okongwu for months when he first came to Buffalo. The girls were fond of Eze and called him Uncle Louis. Eze today says he took his duty seriously and never left the three unattended.
At times in 1991 they were joined by Joy Wosu. When Wosu arrived in Buffalo to take her VA job, she sought out local Nigerians. That’s how she met Eze and the Okongwus. She knew few people in Buffalo and was invited on outings with the twins.
The second case begins
According to legal papers, the investigation into the rape charges started this way:
In December 1991, foster mother Ollie McNair found the girls horsing around on a bed. One was atop the other in a manner that simulated sexual activity. Asked what they were doing, the girls answered they were doing what their father does to them during visits. As expected of her, McNair called the county’s Child Protective Services unit, and the system swung into motion.
That’s one version. Nnedi Okongwu gives another.
“This all began one day when my sister, Chendo, and I were playing,” Nnedi said in the first of her two affidavits. “… Our foster mother then sat us down and asked if our father taught us how to do that,” she continued. “From there it spun out of control.”
It was clear by then that Dominic Okongwu did not like Ollie McNair, and the girls were in the middle. Okongwu was arranging to have the girls taken from McNair and placed with a Nigerian family in the area.
It’s possible that McNair did not like Dominic Okongwu – or at least she didn’t think much of him as a parent. According to Okongwu, McNair was hoping to adopt the girls as her own.
The twins place plenty of blame for their false testimony at McNair’s feet. McNair denied the accusations but rejected requests for an interview.
“My foster mother and her friend … told us that if we did not do this the right way, we probably would be sent back to Africa,” Nnedi Okongwu said in a statement. “We were terrified that we would starve to death or be abandoned somewhere in Nigeria. … I was born here but did not know that that made me a United States citizen.”
Said Chendo: “The counselors, our foster mother and district attorneys coached us on what to say and how to say it. As I look back, I don’t think anyone listened to us.”
One day in 1993, Paul Hurley walked into the County Courthouse and ran into an assistant district attorney he knew but didn’t like. The prosecutor, known for an aggressive style, scolded Hurley for representing Dominic Okongwu in the Family Court matter five years earlier, in 1988.
He told Hurley he should be ashamed, that it was Hurley’s fault Okongwu was not locked up, and other assorted “crap like that,” Hurley recalled.
“That’s how Cooper was,” he said.
Michael J. Cooper was about to prosecute Okongwu, Eze and Wosu on dozens of counts. He was armed with evidence gathered over several months by another assistant district attorney, Carol Bridge. Bridge, now a federal prosecutor, refused to be interviewed for this article.
Cooper, then and now, believes Dominic Okongwu is guilty.
“If you talk to the foster mother, Ollie, when they were 6 years old she walked in the bedroom, and they were simulating sex on each other,’’ Cooper said recently. “And she said, ‘What’s that?’ And they go, ‘This is what Daddy does to us.’ ”
“Now how would two 6-year-olds know how to do that if the dad didn’t do it?’’ he asked.
Okongwu argues that the 1988 case colored the prosecutors’ views and made them even more determined to convict him. True or not, the 1988 case remains fresh in Cooper’s mind.
“The dad raped them when they were 2 years old,” he said, “and they were too young to be witnesses when they were 2. The guy not only did it once, he did it twice.”
Cooper, who left the office in 1998 and works as a personal injury attorney for Cellino and Barnes, called the appeals on the basis of ineffective trial counsel “nonsense” and used the term “revisionist history” to describe any portrayal of Okongwu as innocent.
He denied that the twins were given a script to follow, though it came up during the trial when a defense lawyer asked Chendo how she had learned some of the words she was using, “privates,” for example.
“We have this script,” she answered, “and we read it over to refreshen our mind so we would know what to say the next day.”
During an interview in January 1992, the girls told an employee of the Child and Adolescent Treatment Services agency that they wanted to ask their “Uncle Louis” if he knew “what our father did to us.”
The statement did not jibe with the girls’ claim that Eze, too, had abused them in the basement of Okongwu’s apartment. Eze’s defense lawyer never introduced the contradiction. She feared the jury might think Eze failed to constantly monitor the visits.
The federal judge who reviewed her performance in 2003, William M. Skretny, did not fault her for that decision. But he did for others. For example:
• Jessamine Ingrid Jackson, who had never represented someone charged with child abuse, told Skretny that she “probably” reviewed medical literature regarding the sexual abuse of children. “However, she never visited a medical library and could not recall the names of the articles or texts that she reviewed,” the judge wrote later.
• Jackson and the rest of the defense team – J. Glenn Davis and the late Edwin Gonzalez, whose heroin addiction was publicly exposed four years before the criminal trial began – never lined up a medical expert to counter the prosecution’s doctor. The doctor concluded the girls had been raped based on a physical examination and on the girls’ statements. But medical studies questioned whether hymenal exams could reliably indicate abuse and, as Skretny noted, the local medical community was raising “serious questions” about methods used in the Okongwu case. Yet the defense never called its own doctor.
• More importantly, defense lawyers passed up the chance to wipe out the prosecution’s physical evidence. The district attorney’s doctor admitted he also examined Chendo Okongwu in the 1988 case. Surprisingly, his findings in 1988 were virtually the same as his findings after the supposed rapes of 1991. A defense lawyer asked about Nnedi’s comparison, but prosecutor Cooper objected because a different doctor examined Nnedi in 1988. Judge Rose LaMendola, now retired, agreed with Cooper and sustained his objection. The defense team never returned to the subject to show that findings for Nnedi, too, had not changed.
In a case that came down to credibility and some physical evidence, there was no physical evidence.
“Looking back on it now, I probably could have done more to coordinate the defenses than I did,” said Davis, who represented Okongwu. Davis said he always knew the three were not guilty.
Skretny determined that Eze’s representation was so “constitutionally deficient” it denied him the right to a fair trial. The decision in 2003 helped Wosu and Okongwu eventually win their appeals, which at the time were only sputtering in the state courts.
Eze is soft-spoken, with a wide build and an easy manner. In prison, he kept his head down, stayed busy and treated it almost like he did the boarding school he attended in Nigeria. Sometimes he talks bitterly about his life being uprooted. Other times, he seems to take it in stride.
“The only reason I was involved in that case was because I was appointed by the State of New York to supervise the visitation,” he said. “I had just finished out of college. I had a job, and I was doing well, and all of a sudden, everything breaks loose, and I was taken away from my job and my life. The whole nine yards.”
To Eze, the twins are still family. Sometimes he gives Chendo a ride to work, he said. He picks her up in the house on Poultney Avenue. Even with all that has gone on, Chendo still lives there.
The art of interviewing children in cases of child abuse has improved since 1992, in part to heed the lessons of the McMartin Preschool case from California and other injustices, in which parents and caregivers were locked away because of false or coerced testimony from children.
In Erie County, most interviews are conducted not at police stations but inside a repurposed mansion on Franklin Street. The Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, a unit of Child and Adolescent Treatment Services, opened in 1994, the year Okongwu, Wosu and Eze were packed off to prison.
Interviewers are expected to, among other things, keep concepts simple; to avoid leading questions or questions that elicit only yes or no answers; to let children know it’s OK to answer with “I don’t know” if they don’t know; and to ensure they understand the difference between truth and lies.
In their statements, the Okongwu twins said they were shut down any time they tried to retract the accusations and correct the authorities. Even today, a child who changes his or her story – who “recants” – faces skepticism because officials tend to assume the child feels pressure to change course.
“When faced with a victim’s recantation, prosecutors should seek out evidence that will rehabilitate and corroborate the victim’s initial, truthful disclosure,” says a September 2011 article in “Strategies,” a newsletter for prosecutors. The article leaves little room for the possibility that the child’s latest statement is the truth.
“There are instances again that we have seen where family members pressure the child to recant their allegations because they don’t want the breadwinner to be kicked out of the house and go to jail,” said Judith Olin, director of the child advocacy center. “And unfortunately children are often put under a lot of pressure in that regard. It is very sad.”
Jeffrey Deskovic doubts that interviewing has improved much. He was convicted at 17 of raping and murdering a fellow high school student in Peekskill. After 16 years in prison, he was cleared by DNA evidence that identified the real killer, who meanwhile had murdered again. Once released, Deskovic earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, with money received for his wrongful conviction, began a foundation in New York City that helps others serving time for crimes they did not commit.
Naturally, police and prosecutors want to protect kids and want to know whether physical or sexual abuse occurred, Deskovic said, but the system often presumes guilt because of the revulsion triggered by sex crimes against children. Sometimes, he added, police and prosecutors are fueled by a “cosmic justice mentality’’: They believe their suspect breaks the law and want a conviction “for one thing or another” to get them off the street.
It’s the very dynamic that Okongwu says was at play in his case. Officials believed he was guilty of abuse in 1988 but didn’t convict him. They were determined that the trial in 1993 would end differently.
Kevin M. Dillon, the district attorney when Okongwu was convicted, remembered little of the case. But today’s district attorney, Frank A. Sedita III, sees no miscarriage of justice. He said the women were asked after their father won his appeal to testify in a second trial. According to Sedita, the Okongwu twins did not claim they had been railroaded back in 1993. They even said their recent affidavits were false. Then they stressed that they would not testify again only because, Sedita said, they wanted to avoid reliving the matter.
Sedita and his team adamantly deny that the girls were coached or coerced. They say the girls made clear statements to the authorities back in the early 1990s and the horrific details were strong enough to bring charges and take the case to trial.
Stachowski, the lawyer who argued Okongwu’s final appeal, says he knows the women were truthful in their two sets of affidavits. The first was completed in 2010, after the appeal was won. The second came in 2013, after charges were dropped and their father prepared his lawsuit for the Court of Claims. Stachowski says the statements to the DA’s staff should not be taken as genuine. The women feared they would be charged somehow if they did not testify and wanted to free themselves from the prosecutors’ demands, he said.
“In late 2011, when I was 26 years old,” the women say in identical statements, “the Erie County District Attorney’s Office sought my assistance in re-trying this case against my father. I refused, knowing now the allegations I was forced to memorize and told to recite back in November 1993 are untrue.”
Both women, guarding their privacy, refused to be interviewed for this article. But one, in a brief conversation with The News, stressed that no abuse occurred.
Released with no fanfare
After 19 years, Okongwu’s first taste of freedom came on a cold December evening in 2011. He won his appeal 18 months earlier but remained in the Holding Center because prosecutors said they would retry him.
After a year and half, a prosecutor finally told the judge he could not go forward because the daughters refused to testify. All charges were immediately dismissed.
Still, Okongwu could not leave the jail.
Would federal immigration agents want him?
He was to have been deported after serving his sentence, assuming he didn’t leave prison in a box. But now there was no conviction and no new trial. Like Eze and Wosu, his record was clean.
Around midnight, a Holding Center deputy told Okongwu he could go. He didn’t believe it at first. Then, with no coat, he was bounding along downtown streets searching for a phone.
He found one near Elmwood Avenue and Chippewa Street. His frozen fingers pounded in the numbers of a Nigerian acquaintance living in Clarence to ask for a ride out of there.
If Okongwu had been paroled, there would have been a plan, resources and oversight to help him restart life on the outside. As an exonoree, he was on his own.
He’s not bitter toward his daughters. In a letter to him in prison, Nnedi once wrote: “No words can make up for all the pain we caused you. I am truly sorry.”
They all see each other from time to time, though Chendo and Nnedi are cool to him now, he said, because he gave their telephone numbers to The News.
For several months after his release Okongwu lived with Eze, who had landed a good government job. But they had a falling out and no longer talk. Wosu is not in contact with either of them
In one of several interviews, Okongwu spent more than an hour going through his life’s milestones, both good and bad: Surviving a war. Coming to America. Obtaining his degrees. The births of his daughters. A trial. Then another trial. Locked away for 19 years. Finally his release. And now, another shot at compensation as potential employers look with suspicion at the aging job applicant before them.
When through, Okongwu paused as if to take in the breadth of his own saga.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I look back and I say, ‘wow.’ ” ..Source.. by Matthew Spina