In 2020 a man walked out onto the America’s Got Talent stage and began performing Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” This was Archie Williams, and he had a tremendous tale to tell. Indeed, when the full tragic story was revealed it provoked strong emotions, not least from Elton John himself.
The story of Archie Williams started back in 1982. That year, a woman was attacked in her Baton Rouge residence. Williams, then just 22, was arrested for the incident. The victim had selected him from a line-up of suspects. And to the prosecution, in the absence of any DNA analysis, that was all the evidence they needed.
However, the woman in question hadn’t been asked to identify her attacker until several weeks had passed. She’d been handed a selection of photographs that had a shot of Williams among them. Twice she said that the authorities ought to search for a suspect who looked like Williams, but she didn’t claim that he was the attacker until later. In addition, a witness also wasn’t able to pick him out of a line-up.
In court, three people – Williams’ sister, his mom and a pal – stated that Williams was taking a nap in his house when the crime took place. Williams was also shorter than the man the victim had described. She was 5 feet 7 inches but said the rapist was taller than her. Williams, however, was only 5 feet 4 inches.
Moreover, there had been fingerprints discovered in the victim’s home, some of them near the blood marks that the attack had caused. None of the prints belonged to Williams, though. At the trial, prosecutor Jeff Hollingsworth accepted this in court and stated that they may have been left by a workman who’d been in the house.
A lot of the prosecution’s case rested on the victim having identified Williams in the line-up. According to The New York Times, Hollingsworth told the court, “Do you think she didn’t remember that day? Would you forget that face if someone were doing that to you?” But Williams’ own attorney, Kathleen S. Richey, pointed out that Williams didn’t have a scar on his body in the place where the victim had said her attacker did.
As the trial neared its end, Richey again pointed out the lack of Williams’ fingerprints at the scene and said, “Fingerprints don’t lie. It would be a travesty and a danger to convict the wrong man. The real [attacker] will laugh at the judicial system and terrorize other innocent women in their homes during the day.”
Nonetheless, Williams went to prison for life without any chance of parole. He fiercely maintained his innocence, but there was little choice but to wait. There were a few things he could use to fill his days, though. Williams is interested in music, so while behind bars he formed a group in the jail and began singing gospel.
In prison, Williams also had access to a television, and he became a fan of America’s Got Talent. Indeed, he was transfixed by the idea of performing on the show. That hope and his strong religious faith kept him going while locked up in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, a place nicknamed “Alcatraz of the South.”
Eventually, in 1995 Williams was able to send a letter to an organization called the Innocence Project. Addressing the co-founder Barry Scheck, he stated, “As the years go by I sit here year after year, it’s like no one cares. By the Grace of God I’m still holding on hoping and praying in faith that someone will answer my letter and help me.”
The Innocence Project team subsequently started working on Williams’ case. Unfortunately, progress was slow in the beginning. Firstly, the authorities tried to deny him access to the U.S. fingerprint database, which would have helped to find a match for the fingerprints discovered at the scene of the assault all those years ago. The prints weren’t searched for until 2009, in fact, and no match was found at that time.
Ten years after that, however, things finally fell into place. In 2019 the Innocence Project was able to match the fingerprints using the database of the FBI. They led to the real perpetrator: a serial attacker named Stephen Forbes. He’d died in 1996 while in the midst of a two-decade sentence for other crimes.
As a result, Williams was, after so many years, a free man. The Innocence Project’s director of post-conviction litigation, Vanessa Potkin, said in a press release, “Mr. Williams first wrote to the Innocence Project for help in 1995. He was 35 years old. Today, he walked out of prison at age 58. 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,” her statement continued. “Once a person is convicted, the criminal laws are rife with vast, insurmountable procedural hurdles intended to favor finality over truth.”
Williams was also within his rights to demand $250,000 in compensation, which works out at less than $8,000 per year that he spent wrongly incarcerated. He was given an official apology as well from the local district attorney, Hillar C. Moore III. And upon leaving court, Williams stated that he felt no ill will towards the woman who’d incorrectly claimed he was her attacker.
After that, though, Williams struggled to adjust to life on the outside of a prison wall. In November 2016 he told the radio show All Things Considered, “Today’s technology is really my hardest part of what’s going on in today’s society. I’m learning… trying to get back into society like I once was.” He was also entering singing contests in New York.
And eventually Williams decided to audition for one of the biggest contests out there, America’s Got Talent, the show that had kept him entertained while in prison. He auditioned in front of judges Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel. They all listened as he told his story.
To gasps of shock from the audience, an emotional Williams explained what had happened to him. “I couldn’t believe it was really happening,” he said of his incarceration. “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.”
“Three people testified that I was at home, but they wanted somebody to pay,” Williams continued. “I was sentenced to life in 80 years without the possibility of parole or probation. I was sent to Angola State Penitentiary. It was classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States. You had a choice to either be strong or weak.”
The former prisoner recalled how he’d been “tried and tested” while stuck in prison. “Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades,” he explained. “It’s like a nightmare, you know.” There could be absolutely no doubt that his time in jail had left him deeply affected emotionally.
America’s Got Talent presenter Terry Crews asked Williams, “How did you get through?” Williams answered, “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.”
“When the Innocence Project took my case, I just hoped that one day we’d prevail,” Williams continued. “This new technology got me back in court. It was ordered to, you know, run the fingerprints in the database. Within hours they’d matched the prints to a serial [attacker]. After 37 years I was released on March the 31st.”
On stage, Williams broke into Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” It was a song that seemed to sum up his life so far perfectly, including as it did lyrics such as: “I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free, cos losing everything is like the sun going down on me.” And at the end, he received a standing ovation.
The judges were awestruck. Cowell told Williams, “I will never, ever listen to that song in the same way ever again after you sang that. It took on a whole different meaning for me. And you’re a very, very courageous person.” As the crowd cheered, Cowell added, “This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life.”
And even though Elton John hadn’t been there to witness Williams singing his song, he was incredibly touched when he did see Williams’ rendition. The music legend tweeted out, “I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me.’ The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela.”
In the replies to John’s tweet, several people suggested that one day he and Williams could perform the song as a duet. One wrote, “He has lived a life of hell and yet such a gentle soul. Elton. Maybe the two of you could sing this song together.” Others commented that they, too, had been moved to tears.
Terry Crews also took to Twitter to help spread Williams’ story. He wrote with the hashtag #AGTPremiere, “37 YEARS IN JAIL FOR SOMEBODY ELSE’S CRIME! He deserves a lifetime of happiness. I’m so happy to see that he is free, and thriving, and I wish you all of the success in the world.”
Williams left a message on his own social media account thanking people for the support as well. On Instagram he posted, “Since my audition aired, I have received countless messages, comments and donations from around the world. Some of you have shared your own heartbreaking stories of fighting for justice in the legal system.”
“I am praying for you,” the exonerated man continued. “I really wish there was a way for me to respond to each and every message. I want you to know that I am deeply touched by all the love and appreciate your support. God bless each and every one of you!” In the comments beneath the post, people left more well-wishes.
The media interest led to Williams being contacted for interviews, and he seemed happy to talk. After his audition, he told Entertainment Tonight about how he’d maintained his religious convictions while in prison. He said, “I don’t know that it can be explained, but all it’s all about faith in God.”
Williams also recalled the day he’d been freed from prison, saying, “It was really unbelievable, really, to be honest. It was really hard to believe after all the denials that I received over the course of the years.” Now, his plan for the future was to “reach back and pull as many as I could.”
One thing made clear by Williams’ story is that the statistics surrounding false imprisonment are enormously concerning. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been far more in recent years, meaning that before then hundreds of people were sitting in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. And black people are still far more likely to be wrongly convicted of serious crimes.
In 2019 the Innocence Project noted on its website, “The same trends that we witness at the front end of the system are also seen among black people who were exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. Black exonerees face disparities at every point in the system, from being more likely to be wrongly convicted to spending more time behind bars and once exonerated, receiving less compensation than white exonerees.”
Nonetheless, Williams’ audition caused a chain-reaction of good things. In May 2020 the Innocence Project put out a press release headlined, “Archie Williams Inspires Simon Cowell to Become Innocence Project Ambassador.” Cowell had been so touched by the performance, in fact, that he’d decided to use his clout to help other people like Williams.
“Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent. What happened to Archie is tragic,” Cowell said in the press release. “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. There are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons.”
“Archie’s story is one of courage and hope – and I hope that by knowing more about his story and the Innocence Project, it will encourage more people to support the incredible work they do,” the music mogul continued. “These guys don’t just talk; they actually do something about it. The Innocence Project doesn’t just change people’s lives, they save people’s lives.”
Vanessa Potkin also contributed to the press release, and she added, “All too often voices like Archie’s are silenced and ignored. It takes years of fighting against all odds to overturn a wrongful conviction. For Innocence Ambassadors to use their platforms to bring attention to our cases and to bring to light the injustices of the legal system is extraordinarily impactful.”
Furthermore, Elton John wasn’t done with Williams and his story yet, either. On May 27 Williams told People magazine, “[John] called me personally. He gave me an invitation to sing on his show when he comes back to the United States. It was definitely a surprise! He said he never heard anyone sing his song like that ever. It was really touching to him. It brought him to tears, he said. It was touching.”
In June 2020 Williams discussed his audition once again, this time with The Advocate. He talked about the musicians who’d inspired him, saying, “My queen of soul is Gladys Knight. My king of soul is Stevie Wonder, and my prince is Marvin Winans. [I like] 50 Cent, a lot of others. I listen to a variety of music, but those are my idols of music.”
As for his audition song, Williams said, “I’ve always been a fan of Elton John’s. The song related so much to my story. I always took that as a personal song. I always said once I get the chance to sing that song, that would be the song.” And now his performance of it has taken on tremendous significance for many other people as well.