A man who spent more than 30 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit blew away the judges with his singing skills on a premiere episode of “America’s Got Talent.”
Archie Williams, 59, was featured on the NBC reality show’s premiere Tuesday night, where he moved the judges with his performance of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” But before he began singing, he shared his surprising story: He was convicted in 1983 by the state of Louisiana for a rape and assault that he didn’t commit, and was sentenced to life in prison.
“I couldn't believe it was really happening,” Williams recalled. “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.”
Although the victim, a 31-year-old white woman, told the jury that she was only 70 percent sure that Williams was the man who forced his way into her home, raped her, and stabbed her — even saying that she had a first and second choice of suspects she thought might be guilty — the jury still found him guilty, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. Despite having an alibi and the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, Williams was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated rape, and aggravated battery, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit devoted to fighting wrongful convictions, took up his case in 1995 and after years of fighting, were able to have Williams’ fingerprints analyzed, according to the registry. The fingerprints found at the scene of the rape and assault were those of serial rapist who’d already been convicted of and connected to multiple sexual assaults — including one that took place mere miles from the scene of the rape Williams was wrongly convicted of committing.
In March 2019, Williams' conviction was vacated and he was finally released.
Despite spending 36 years in prison as an innocent man, Williams “never let [his] mind go to prison,” he told host Terry Crews during Tuesday’s episode. Prayer and music — singing, specifically — brought him peace during his time behind bars, and he became a fan of the very show that, unbeknownst to him at the time, he would one day appear on.
“I watched 'America's Got Talent' in prison and I would visualize myself there,” he said. “I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I'm here. Thank God. I know it’s my chance of a lifetime.”
Williams’ performance of an Elton John classic earned him a standing ovation from all four judges, as well as the studio audience.
Elton John himself also took to Twitter to share that the performance brought him to tears.
“I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me,’” his tweet reads. “The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela. Love, E xx.”
Williams’ moving story resonated deeply with judge Simon Cowell, who announced that, following the experience, he became an ambassador for the Innocence Project.
“Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of ‘America’s Got Talent,’” reads a statement from Cowell supplied to the Innocence Project. “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,” he continued. “There are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons. I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the Innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie.”
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