Archie Williams is a former convicted felon who was freed from prison in 2019 after an examination of evidence exonerated him for the crime. On Tuesday, May 26, he will appear on the season 15 premiere of America’s Got Talent where he wows the judges with his rendition of Elton John’s classic song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Ahead of that episode, here’s what you need to know about Williams.
1. Williams Charged With Raping and Stabbing a Woman in 1982
In 1982, a 38-year-old white woman was stabbed and raped in her Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home. According to the Innocence Project, the rapist “forced his way into the victim’s house and attacked her in an upstairs bedroom. When a neighbor entered the house, the assailant stabbed the victim. The assailant initially closed the door to the bedroom, but then forced the neighbor inside before leaving.”
The victim later identified Williams as her rapist, but only after repeatedly not identifying Williams. According to the Innocence Project:
Nearly one month after the crime, the victim was shown a photo array that included Williams, but she did not select him as the assailant. She did, however, tell police officers that when they look for the assailant, they should look for an individual who resembled Williams’ photo. Police showed the victim a second array that depicted profile pictures. For a second time, she did not select Williams as the perpetrator but again told police to look for someone who resembled him. It was only after the victim was shown a third photo array with Williams’ photo that she selected him as the assailant. Both the victim and neighbor were shown an in-person line up with Williams. The neighbor selected a filler, not Williams. The victim, now having seen Williams a fourth time, identified him.
After the victim identified Williams on the fourth try, the police arrested him.
2. The Defense Argued That the Eyewitness Testimony Was Mistaken
At trial, the eyewitness evidence also suggested that Williams had been misidentified. Both the victim and the neighbor described someone quite a bit taller than Williams, who stands at 5’4″. The defense wanted to use an eyewitness expert to support their argument that the eyewitnesses had misidentified Williams, but “identification experts were not allowed to testify in court at that point in time in Louisiana,” according to the Innocence Project.
Furthermore, Williams had an alibi for the night of the attack. His sister, his mother, and a family friend all testified that he was home in bed asleep at the time of the attack. But as he said during his America’s Got Talent audition, he did not have the money to mount much of a defense.
“I knew I was innocent. I didn’t commit a crime. But being a poor black kid, I didn’t have the economic ability to fight the state of Louisiana. At the trial … three people testified that I was at home, but they wanted somebody to pay.”
3. Williams Was Sentenced to Life With Parole
In 1983, then-22-year-old Williams was convicted for attempted murder, aggravated rape, and aggravated burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, he told the AGT judges.
Williams was sent to Angola State Penitentiary, where he said you had to either be “strong or weak” because you were going to be “tried and tested.”
“Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades. It’s like a nightmare … freedom is of the mind. I went to prison but I never let my mind go to prison,” he told America’s Got Talent host Terry Crews, adding, “It’s a feeling I’m still trying to digest, the freedom that I have right now.”
“I watched America’s Got Talent in prison and I would visualize myself being there. I always desired to be on a stage like this and now I’m here. Thank god. I know this is my chance of a lifetime.”
4. The Innocence Project Took Up His Case in 1995
In 1995, the Innocence Project took Williams’ case when he appealed to them for help. They immediately began trying to obtain DNA testing for Williams, but it took over 10 years for Louisiana to pass a law letting convicted people access DNA testing after trial in order to prove their innocence.
The DNA testing on the rape kit was completed in 2009. The male DNA did not match Williams; it actually matched the victim’s husband and therefore did not reveal the assailant’s identity, according to the Innocence Project. But that was not enough to get Williams’ conviction overturned.
The factor that finally exonerated Williams was fingerprint testing. Even though Williams’ fingerprints did not match any of the fingerprints taken at the scene, it took until 2019, when Commissioner Kinasiyumki Kimble of the 19th Judicial District Court of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ordered the state to run the fingerprints from the scene through a national database, to match the prints to someone else.
“When you faced with dark times, what I would do is pray and sing. This is how I got peace. When the Innocence Project took my case, I just kept hope that they would prevail. This new technology got me back in court. They was ordered to run the fingerprints in the database. Within hours, they matched the prints to a serial rapist. After 37 years, I was released on March 21st, 2019,” Williams told AGT.
After hearing Williams’ story, Simon Cowell became an ambassador for The Innocence Project. He writes on Twitter, “What happened to Archie is tragic. While his voice is extraordinary, unfortunately his experience of being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is more common than people realize. I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the Innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie. I hope that by knowing about his story and the Innocence Project, it will encourage more people to support the incredible work they do.”
I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the @innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie. I hope that by knowing about his story and the Innocence Project, it will encourage more people to support the incredible work they do pic.twitter.com/zmstF7buw2
— Simon Cowell (@SimonCowell) May 26, 2020
5. Stephen Forbes Was Identified as the Attacker; He Committed Several Other Rapes
When the prints were run through the FBI’s Next Generation Identification, they matched Stephen Forbes, a man who had committed several other sexual assaults in the same neighborhood as the victim in Williams’ case.
Forbes was arrested in 1986 in Baton Rouge for the attempted rape and burglary of a woman in her home. The police responded to reports of a woman’s screams and disrupted Forbes’ attack in progress, according to The Advocate. At the time, he confessed to four other rapes between December 1985 and May 1986 and told police he had been raping women since he was 14.
Forbes was charged with three counts of aggravated rape, one count of attempted aggravated rape, five counts of aggravated burglary, one count of armed robbery, two counts of auto theft, one count of crime against nature and one count of simple burglary.
Forbes died in prison in 1996 after suffering from mental illness for years. He had never been questioned about the crime in Williams’ case, according to the Innocence Project.
America’s Got Talent airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.