After 36 Years in a Louisiana Prison for a Rape He Didn’t Commit, Archie Williams Wins Freedom — and a TV Show Spotlight
Despite this experience, Williams has maintained a warm and hopeful disposition. Along with his skillful voice, his amazing personality was on full display in May 2020 for an audience of 8.7 million people watching the TV show America’s Got Talent. After producer Simon Cowell asked him to share a little about himself, Williams shocked the crowd when he answered:
“I was just incarcerated for thirty-seven years for somebody else’s crime.”
In a pre-taped interview, Williams then elaborated how on December 9, 1982, a 30-year-old had been raped and stabbed in her Baton Rouge home. He was arrested for the crime on January 4, 1983, he continued, and he “couldn’t believe it was really happening.”
“I knew I was innocent, 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.”
Williams was convicted on April 21, 1983. Before he went to trial, his lawyer told him that the state was not going to stop until it had a conviction. And that is exactly what happened. Trial evidence included fingerprints that were demonstrated not to be his, along with testimony from three witnesses that Williams was asleep at home when the crimes occurred. The victim had also been shown multiple line-ups without identifying Williams, only succumbing after intense pressure from law enforcement.
The defense further argued that exonerating evidence was withheld, while other evidence was tampered with, and fabricated. Nevertheless Williams, then 22, was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life without the possibility of parole in the state penitentiary in Angola, one of the toughest prisons in America.
Various attorneys and the Innocence Project spent decades trying to free him. A 1996 request for DNA testing of evidence was opposed by the prosecution. Their opposition persisted even after a new law passed in 2001 giving Williams an affirmative right to such testing. In 2009, the motion was finally granted, and DNA testing showed that Williams was not the contributor of the evidence.
That alone should have been enough to free him, yet it was not. The Innocence Project then turned to a renewed examination of bloody fingerprint evidence. It wanted to search the FBI’s fingerprint database, but the state continued to oppose the requests. Finally, in 2019, suitable fingerprints were examined in the newer Next Generation Identification system. Within hours, Williams caught a break: The prints were matched to Stephen Forbes, a man known to have committed sexual assaults in the very same neighborhood where the victim lived.
Williams was finally freed on March 21, 2019, with the local district attorney declaring, “As a representative of the State, I apologize.”
Williams, who had been singing since he was a small boy and continued to use song and prayer to get through his ordeal, said when he watched America’s Got Talent while in prison, he imagined getting on the show one day.
“I always desired to be on a stage like this and now I’m here,” he said. “Thank God.”
Promising he would never allow evil to live in his heart, even if it had been inflicted upon him, the 59-year-old wowed the crowd with a soulful rendition of Elton John’s 1974 hit, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me. It brought Sir Elton “to tears,” he said in a phone call to Williams, drawing a comparison between him and South African racial justice hero Nelson Mandela.
Simon Cowell called it a tragedy that “there are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons.” He then announced he had become “an Ambassador for the Innocence Project,” and he vowed “to do what I can to help more people like Archie.”
“Unfortunately, there are far too many people like Mr. Williams who are still imprisoned for crimes they did not commit,” the Innocence Project declared in a statement.
In March 2020, Metairie attorney Jeffrey Mitchell filed a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit on Williams’ behalf against the city of Baton Rouge and several other defendants, including:
• former Baton Rouge Police Department detectives Charles Mondrick and Marjorie Groht;
• former forensic scientist Jerry Miller;
• Patrick Lane, a former forensic specialist of the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory;
• District Attorney Hillar Moore, formerly an investigator with the Office of the District Attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish; and
• Sybil Guidry, former fingerprint examiner of the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory.
Williams advanced to the finals of America’s Got Talent in September 2020.
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