‘AGT’ singer who was wrongly incarcerated opens up about his show-stopping audition

Nearly four decades after being wrongfully convicted in 1982, Archie Williams got the chance of a lifetime to fulfill one of his long-held dreams.

He gave a stunning performance of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” to a standing ovation on “America’s Got Talent.”

But before he sang for the judges on Tuesday night’s episode, Williams revealed a shocking story. “I was just incarcerated for 37 years for somebody else’s crime,” he told the judges onstage. “DNA freed me.”

On Wednesday, TODAY’s Natalie Morales had a chance to speak with Williams about his incredible twist of fate and overdue freedom.

“I don't think you can explain it, the fullness of freedom,” the 59-year-old told her. “I don't think words can explain the fullness of freedom.”

Just before his emotional and now-viral “AGT” audition, Williams shared his journey from conviction to exoneration.

On the show, Williams explained, “On the morning of Dec. 9 of 1982 a 30-year-old white woman was raped and stabbed in her home. I was arrested on Jan. 4. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I knew I was innocent.”

Archie Williams (Trae Patton / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Archie Williams (Trae Patton / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

He was imprisoned until 2019, when new evidence linking another individual to the crime led to a new trial and his release, according to The Innocence Project, who represented Williams.

“I didn’t commit a crime,” he said. “But being a poor black kid, I didn’t have the economic ability to fight the state of Louisiana. At the trial, none of the fingerprints at the scene matched mine. Three people testified that I was at home, but they wanted somebody to pay. I was sentenced to life and 80 years without the possibility of parole or probation.”

He called it “a nightmare,” but now he’s living a dream that seemed out of reach to him for so long—one that includes a daughter that he didn’t even know existed before his release.

“To think of her going all those years without me,” he teared up as he told Natalie. “It's just the profoundest thing that's in my life right now.”

Well, that and the fact that he has a whole new life ahead of him that he never envisioned.

“I want to make up all the lost years,” he said. “And, you know, I want to do a career in singing with my nieces and nephews I have. We're just singers.”

According to “AGT” judge and record executive Simon Cowell, he’d be happy to help with that.

That’ll come as no surprise to viewers who tuned in Tuesday night and saw the impact Williams had on Cowell — and everyone else who witnessed his performance. This includes Elton John, who tweeted that Williams' rendition of his song moved him to tears.

Before taking the stage, Williams said he used to watch "America's Got Talent" while imprisoned. "I would visualize myself being there. I always desired to be on a stage like this."

When host Terry Crews asked Williams how he was able to survive the situation, the singer responded, “Freedom is of the mind. I went to prison, but I never let my mind go to prison."

Cowell shared a clip of the audition and Williams’ story on Twitter, revealing that moving performance will stick with him for years to come.

"This is Archie Williams,” Cowell wrote. “I will never forget this audition for the rest of my life. And I’ll never listen to this song in the same way ever again.”

Proving the extent of that impact, on Tuesday the 60-year-old revealed that he’s now an ambassador for The Innocence Project and he’s committed to helping others like Williams.

“Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent,” Cowell said in a statement for the organization that works to free the wrongly convicted. "What happened to Archie is tragic. While Archie’s voice is extraordinary, unfortunately his experience of being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is much more common than most people realize.”

Now Williams and Cowell go forward with the hope that others will come to understand "the fullness of freedom," too.⁠