During the season 15 premiere of America's Got Talent, the world was introduced to an incredible singer named Archie Williams. But beyond his undeniable talent, it was the 59-year-old's backstory that made his rendition of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" that much more powerful.
As the contestant explained on the NBC series, Williams was wrongly convicted for a crime he didn't commit and served 37 years in prison as a result. Back in 1983, when Williams was just 22, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana for aggravated rape, aggravated battery, and attempted murder of a 31-year-old woman. Williams's mother, sister, and a family friend all testified that he was home asleep at the time the crime was committed. At the trial, none of the fingerprints collected at the scene matched with Williams's.
"I knew I was innocent, I didn't commit a crime," Williams said on the show. "But being a poor Black kid, I didn't have the economic ability to fight the state of Louisiana."
As he spent his years behind bars, Williams explained that while he was physically imprisoned, he never let "his mind go to prison."
Over time, Williams learned about The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and advocating for criminal justice reform. In 1995, he wrote to the organization to see if they could help re-examine his case. The Innocence Project responded, and, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, in 1996, the organization filed a motion for DNA testing when it became forensically available.
Per the Innocence Project, it took over 10 years for Williams to get the testing because he had to "wait for the law to catch up with the science." More specifically, Williams waited "for Louisiana to pass a law entitling convicted people to access DNA testing after trial to prove innocence." Eventually, DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit was completed in 2009, but the male DNA did not match Williams — it matched the victim’s husband, therefore not identifying the assailant.
The fight for Williams's freedom continued. Finally, on March 14, 2019, fingerprint analysis proved Williams's innocence and a man named Stephen Forbes, who had died in 1996, was linked to the crime. Forbes, who reportedly suffered from mental illness, had been arrested and confessed to several other rape charges. Seven days after the fingerprint analysis was completed, Williams was released from prison.
A post shared by Archie Williams (@archiewilliamsofficial) on May 15, 2020 at 9:28pm PDT
After learning about Williams's backstory and hearing the contestant sing on America's Got Talent, judge Simon Cowell couldn't help but get emotional. He told Williams, "This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life."
Inspired by Williams's resilience, Cowell ended up joining The Innocence Project as an ambassador, in hopes of raising awareness about the organization's work and fight for justice.
Watching Williams's audition again, Cowell got choked up. "Something about watching that clip back, again, it's just this feeling of total injustice," he said talking to those involved with The Innocence Project. "Every time I watch the audition back, I'm watching it through his eyes and how he must've felt on the day."
Nationwide, there have been over 2,600 exonerations since 1989 and more than 23,000 years lost to wrongful conviction.
Cowell told the organization that he intends to do what he can to help spark positive change — for Williams and others like him.
"Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent. 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 ... Archie’s story is one of courage and hope."
Archie recently advanced to the live shows, which is one step closer to the finale and possibly being crowned the season 15 champion.
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