On May 26, 2020, 8.7 million people watched on television as Archie Williams walked onto the stage of America’s Got Talent.
He gave his name, said he was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Alright, let’s get to know you, first of all, Archie, a little bit,” judge and producer Simon Cowell said.
“Okay,” Williams said.
He ran a hand over his face, settling himself. He looked around the packed auditorium, the one he had seen on TV so many times. Looked down at the spot on the stage where for years he had dreamed of standing.
The audience listened. Ten seconds went by. Ten seconds is an eternity on television, when you’re standing in front of 3,500 people. And Simon Cowell.
Williams said: “I was just incarcerated for thirty-seven years for somebody else’s crime.”
People in the audience put their hands over their mouths.
Howie Mandel said, “Oh!”
Cowell’s mouth hung slack.
In a pre-recorded interview, Williams told the AGT audience that, on December 9, 1982, “a thirty-year-old white woman was raped and stabbed her in her home. I was arrested on January the fourth. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. 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.”
Back on stage Williams explained, “DNA freed me.” The audience clapped wildly.
Cowell asked Williams what he was going to do for them on America’s Got Talent that day.
“I’m gonna sing.”
And man, did Archie Williams sing.
It was on April 21, 1983 that Archie Williams was convicted in the case of the woman’s rape and attempted murder, a crime that had occurred four months prior. His conviction came after a trial in which fingerprints from the crime scene were proven not to be his, and in which sworn testimony from three individuals affirmed that he was home asleep at the time. It came despite an investigation in which evidence was tampered with, evidence was withheld, and evidence was outright fabricated.
The Baton Rouge police showed multiple lineups of suspects to the victim, always including Williams, and they urged the victim to identify Williams as her assailant, even though she had said that the man who attacked her was taller than she was (Williams was shorter) and had a scar on his chest (Williams did not).
Eventually, under pressure from the police, she said that, yes, it was Williams.
Williams was 22 at the time. He suddenly found himself serving life in prison without the possibility of parole and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, known as one of the toughest prisons in the country.
On March 21, 2019, after a judge ordered a review of the bloody fingerprints found at the scene, Williams was found innocent and released from prison, a free man. The local district attorney said, “As a representative of the state, I apologize.”
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while at least three other officers looked on. A week later, as non-violent protests and chaotic riots spread through towns and cities in all fifty states and abroad, I called Williams. Floyd lost his life for no reason. Williams lost 37 years of his life for reasons comprehensible only to the people who stole those years from him. And yet on that stage, he exuded warmth, understanding, and hope. He exuded wisdom. His story and Floyd’s are different, but both make you want to scream. I asked Williams about what he does with those feelings, how he got through all those years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, George Floyd, and what others might learn from his experience.
This is some of what he said.
I always say life is how we feel it.
When somebody inflicts evil on you, it’s all about how we let it affect us mentally. If you harbor evil, it can destroy you. That’s a scientific fact, right there. I never harbored evil — even when I knew that the people that put me in prison knew that I was innocent. And I’m talking about from the top to the bottom, they knew. But I never allowed the evil spirit of it to live in my heart.
It’s the same as what’s going on today. It would behoove us to hold the spirit of unity. So much was taken from us, by slavery and everything that’s been inflicted upon us. That’s what I’d really like to say to my people. I’d like to say that much.
The America’s Got Talent audition was taped a while ago, but I watched it when it aired on TV. It was amazing, seeing myself on TV.
I’m a fan of Elton John. His songs always moved me. But that particular song, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” became spiritual to me. It was given to me by the spirits. I used to listen to it in prison, and the words would just come back up whenever it was needed.
Howie Mandel talked to me for a brief second backstage, saying congratulations. And then they called me back on stage to sing a second time. Same song. The audience wanted me to sing it, so I went back out and sang it again.
Elton called me the next day. He said he wants me to sing the song in his show when he comes back to the United States.
Nervous? Nawww. ’Cause I been singing since I was twelve. Since I was a kid, really. When I first went to jail, they would pay me to sing. They would pay me around the bars of the cell just to sing.
In prison, we watched America’s Got Talent all the time. I would visualize myself being there.
In Angola [the Louisiana State Penitentiary], I would talk about my case all the time. That’s how I got the attention that I did get: I would have never come into contact with nobody without talking about how innocent I was from the day I set my foot on Angola soil. I knew that if I reach out, somebody’s gonna hear me.
Before we went into the trial my lawyer took me aside and let me know what I was up against. And that they were not gonna stop until they got a conviction. But she really fought, and she did what she could. She was a good lawyer.
My lawyer today, Brian Dunn, says there was no hope of a fair trial from the moment it started.
I saw the video of George Floyd being killed. Our race of people go through so much in this country — you always get angry. You see the picture, but it’s how you let the picture affect you. Rage, revenge… that becomes a seed that grows inside of you. It’s not the solution to the problem. History will always repeat itself until the problem is solved.
My aunt’s place of business got looted during the riots. In Long Beach. It’s a dessert store. They broke the windows, everything. We put up plywood.
Singing relieves stress. And I exercise. I used to train boxers at Angola. That’s my sport. That’s my exercise. Once I come out of the gym I’d lay back and read books in my cell until sleep. It helped.
Grew up in Louisiana. Three sisters, no brothers. The baby. The only man-child. I was a wild little kid coming up.
When I was about three years old, I was outside in the backyard, and we had these chickens. And it started raining. I didn’t want the chickens to get wet. So I take the chickens —there was three or four of them — and I put them in the garbage can, and I put the top over the garbage can. Well, when it stopped raining my momma went out in the backyard and she said that I had killed the chickens. And she say, “God gonna get you!” I’ve had the fear of God from that day. It’s the truth.
It was the police that discovered me. Me and my friends, we were beating on the mailboxes of the apartments we stayed in. When I looked around he was standing there and I took off running because he was the police! My friends come to my house later, they said, “The man wanna put you in a band!” I told him he hadda wait till my daddy get off work. That’s how I ended up at 12 years old singing in bands. R&B. I would sing a little Michael Jackson song, things like that.
I replace anger with looking at and thinking about other people’s situations. In Angola I would look at other people’s situations and put it before mine. That played a part in my peace. ’Cause you have people that’s been there over fifty years that’s innocent. No help, because there’s no evidence to be tested. They just left there to die.
Since I can remember in life, my relationship always has been with God. Believing in him and trusting in him. I don’t know what other peoples’ beliefs are, but that’s my belief. That’s where I get everything from.
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