Archie Williams was wrongly imprisoned for 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit. One year after he was exonerated and freed from prison, he walked onto the stage of America’s Got Talent and moved the audience and judges to tears with not only his story but his performance.
“I was just incarcerated for 37 years for somebody else’s crime,” told Williams to the judges. The shock rippled through the audience. By the end of Williams’ performance, there was barely a dry eye in the room.
Williams was arrested when he was 22-years-old, accused of raping and stabbing a woman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was convicted in 1983 for attempted murder, aggravated rape and aggravated burglary and sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The 37 years Williams lost in prison is part of the 23,000 years people lost due to wrongful convictions, of which there have been 2,622 exonerations since 1989, according to the registry.
“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,” Williams told America’s Got Talent. “At the trial, none of the fingerprints had the same match. Three people testified that I was at home. But they wanted somebody to pay.”
The now 59-year-old spoke with AGT host Terry Crews backstage and told him about the time he spent behind bars in Angola, classified as “the bloodiest prison in the United States” at the time.
“Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades. It’s like a nightmare,” he explained. When Crews asked him how he got through it, Williams offered a profound answer. “Freedom is of the mind. I went to prison, but I never let my mind go to prison. When you’re faced with dark times, what I would do is I would pray and sing. This is how I got peace.”
How Archie regained his freedom after 37 years
Williams wrote to the Innocence Project to ask for help in 1995, and the organization fought for his case since.
“There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured. The Innocence Project fought alongside Mr. Williams for close to two and a half decades to be able to utilize advancements in forensic testing to prove his innocence,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project. “Given what we now know about wrongful convictions, that they occur at alarming rates, we must create pathways for truth to prevail.”
When asked in 2019 how he felt about finally being released from prison, Williams told the Innocence Project, “There are many innocent people at Angola—guys who have served over 50 years. I’m happy to be cleared finally, but I’m not free until they are free.”
Williams was released on March 21, 2019, after new technology helped find the real assailant. Almost a year after his newfound freedom, he achieved his dream of participating in America’s Got Talent.
“I watched America’s Got Talent while in prison, and I would visualize myself being there,” Williams said. “I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I’m here. Thank God.”
The singer delivered a powerful and emotional rendition of Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Judge Simon Cowell told him, “I will never ever listen to that song in the same way ever again now you’ve sung that. It took on a whole different meaning to me. You’re a very courageous person, and by the way, you have a really good voice! This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life, Archie.”
All four judges gave their “yes” for Williams to continue to the next round of AGT. Cowell pointed to the audience who had given Williams a standing ovation, and said, “I’d say we got about 3,500 ‘yesses’ here.” Williams was beaming, as the large audience chanted his name and Cowell walked off-stage to hug Williams.
The new season of America’s Got Talent just aired on Tuesday, but Williams has already secured a spot in the hearts of people around the world.