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Man exonerated after 36 years in prison delivers unforgettable 'America's Got Talent' audition

Archie Williams' heart-wrenching performance is an audition that Simon Cowell said he would never forget for the rest of his life.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — Archie Williams spent more than three decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Now just one year after he was freed, the Louisiana native is sharing his story and remarkable voice with a national audience on "America's Got Talent." 

The NBC talent competition shared an early look at his audition before Tuesday's season 15 premiere. 

During his audition, Williams recounted his story of spending all those years behind bars, not knowing if he would ever be free again. 

“On the morning of December 9 of 1982, a 30-year-old white woman was raped and stabbed in her home. I was arrested on January 4. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I knew I was innocent," Williams explained during his "AGT" segment. 

"Being a poor black kid, I didn’t have the economic ability to fight the state of Louisiana. At the trial, none of the fingerprints at the scene matched mine. Three people testified that I was at home, but they wanted somebody to pay. I was sentenced to life and 80 years without the possibility of parole or probation,” Williams added.

Williams explained that while in prison he would pray and sing to find peace. 

Eventually, the Innocence Project took his case and DNA evidence finally exonerated Williams. 

On March 21, 2019, Williams left prison a free man once again. 

After sharing his story with the "AGT" judges and audience, Williams performed a heart-wrenching rendition of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." It was a performance that brought judge Heidi Klum to tears and led to a standing ovation from the audience. 

"I don't cry for a whole lot of things, but that really did it to me," Klum explained. "It went from you to me and I felt you and I've been thinking about you and your life. That was very powerful." 

"Thirty-seven years I can't imagine they took a life away from you, but if there's anything that can be given to you...it's the love that you are getting," comedian Howie Mandel described. 

Judge Simon Cowell followed-up by saying that he will never listen to that song in the same way ever again. 

"You're a very, very courageous person...this is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life Archie," Cowell said.  

All four judges agreed, Williams deserved to move on to the next round of the competition. 

Credit: Trae Patton/NBC
Archie Williams, a man who spent more than three decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit, appears on "America's Got Talent."

The story that had been an integral part of Williams' life until this point started on December 9, 1982. After a 31-year-old Baton Rouge, Louisiana, woman heard a knock at her door and answered it to find a black man asking for clothing donations. The man proceeded to violently rape the woman and stab her multiple times. 

After she recovered in the hospital police, police showed the woman several photo lineups to try and identify a suspect. Archie Williams was placed in front of the women during four separate lineups on four different occasions. A practice the National Registry of Exonerations said was, years later, "condemned as suggestive."

The woman also later identified a separate man as the attacker. 

After Williams spent more than a decade in prison, the Innocence Project took on his case after he contacted the organization in 1995. They demanded advancements in forensic testing like DNA and fingerprint comparisons be performed on evidence from the case.  

In 2019, fingerprints taken from the scene were matched to another Baton Rouge man, Stephen Forbes, who had committed similar sexual assaults in the same neighborhood as the victim in Williams’ case. 

“Once a person is convicted, the criminal laws are rife with vast, insurmountable procedural hurdles intended to favor finality over truth. While we have come a long way in allowing convicted people access to evidence for DNA testing, we have a long way to go when non-DNA evidence of innocence is at issue. Given what we now know about wrongful convictions, that they occur at alarming rates, we must create pathways for truth to prevail.,” Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, said in 2019 when Williams was eventually released at the age of 58. 

Forbes died in prison in 1996 and was never questioned about the crime that sent Williams to prison, but Forbes previously admitted he had committed at least four other rapes.

According to Louisiana law, the New York Times reports, Williams is entitled to a maximum sum of $250,000 as repayment for his wrongful incarceration. That comes out to about $7,000 per year that he spend in the state penitentiary, Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project said.   

After watching Williams' audition on "AGT," Simon Cowell was inspired to become an Innocence Ambassador with the Innocence project

"I really do believe that this clip and what Achie's done is going to make a tremendous difference," Cowell explained in a recent interview.  

While Archie Williams will now go on to compete for the $1 million "America's Got Talent" prize, he also wants to go to college. 

Credit: Trae Patton/NBC
Archie Williams, a wrongfully convicted man who spent more than 3 decades in prison, appears on "America's Got Talent."

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