“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (“Don’t let the sun go down on me”), sang Archie Williams in front of the audience of one of the most watched game shows on American television, America’s Got Talent. And Elton John’s song propelled him to unprecedented popularity, not only because of his tenor voice and stunning performances, but because the lyrics also reflected Williams’ dramatic story of perseverance in the face of the injustice of having spent 37 years in a Louisiana prison considered the bloodiest in the United States, for a crime he did not commit.
in March 2019a DNA test (which did not exist at the time of the conviction, and which the state then refused to apply in Williams’ case for years) allowed his Release after identifying the real culprit of rape and severe stabbing against a 30-year-old white woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The victim had mistakenly pointed to Williams in a series of photographs shown to him.
“I’m a fan of Elton John. His music has always moved me. But this song in particular, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’, has become a kind of prayer for me. I listened to it in prison and the lyrics came back to me whenever I needed them,” Williams said. THE NATION in a Zoom interview from the United States.
The Williams case also brought to light a much larger reality. According to the 2019 annual report of the National Registry of Exonerations, the percentage of wrongful convictions in the United States is between 2% and 10%. Thus, being the country with the highest number of prisoners per capita (639 per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by El Salvador with 562 per 100,000), it is estimated that are behind American bars for a crime that between 46,000 and 230,000 people did not commit.
“The American legal system does not work well. Close 95% of state and federal criminal convictions are based on guilty pleas. To save all the cost of legal proceedings or not risk penalties that can be six or seven times higher, totally innocent people end up pleading guilty,” he said. THE NATIONVanessa Potkinthe lawyer who secured Williams’ release and who for 21 years was a member of Innocence Project.
This organization, which was founded in the United States in 1992 by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, is now present in 13 countries, including Argentina, and works for the release of innocent prisoners with firm sentences, essentially involving the application of DNA testing. Since its creation in 1992, The Innocence Project has secured the exoneration of 375 people in the United States, 21 of whom have been released from death row. Of those exonerated, 61% were black and 8% Latino.
“In prison, I met many people who have been imprisoned just because of their skin color. Now I wish I could work for his release, but there isn’t always DNA evidence to overturn the conviction, ”explained Williams, who has sometimes cracked in his story for THE NATION then took a deep breath to move on. “No strong emotions”, mentioned.
Williams recalled that in the 1970s he grew up in Baton Rouge with so many other kids from a black neighborhood, until at age 12 he escaped the police for the first time, but for the wrong reason. “I was singing in the street in front of a group of friends when an agent approached us, and instinctively I ran to my house to hide,” he pointed. But the policeman, who had heard him sing, went to look for him at the family home to suggest that he join a music group and give concerts in the neighborhood clubs. “It was my first income as a singer and they even bought me a costume so that I could present myself well dressed on stage,” he recalls.
But her story changed dramatically in 1982, when she was 22, after a neighborhood rape and stabbing. However, he was arrested none of his fingerprints were found at the crime scene. The only evidence before the court was that, despite the fact that the victim did not identify him in the first two sets of photographs presented to him, he named him in the third – official data indicates that at United States 31% of misidentification convictions result from misidentifications. Williams was sentenced to life in prison, without the right to parole, in the dark Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.
“In this prison You always have to walk around with a hidden knife to be respected. And I was then like a person split in two. Part of me was a would-be assassin with a knife in my hand. And, on the other hand, I began to have the impulse to approach the Bible. He had entered prison with a sixth grade pass and read very badly. One night when the security guard came on his rounds and turned on the lights, I fell to my knees and begged God: “Teach me to read!” When I then sat up on my bed and opened the Bible, it was as if scales had fallen from my eyes and suddenly I read with a speed I had never had before. From that momentno one has helped me as much as god to survive in prisonWilliams called back.
Behind bars, the convict watched the show America’s Got Talent and dreamed of one day being able to sing on this stage. After his release on March 21, 2019, he began to prepare for this goal, which he finally achieved a year later.
On the day of the show, when asked to introduce himself by show creator and juror Simon Cowell, Williams, inexperienced on camera, first nervously touched his face, took a deep breath and dropped a sentence learned from memory which provoked gestures of surprise in the audience. “I have just been incarcerated for 37 years for a crime committed by someone else”, mentioned.
Her life story and then her fabulous performance drew a standing ovation from the entire audience, many of whom, including members of the jury, cried. The next day Elton John himself called him to invite him to sing at one of his concerts, an offer put on hold due to the pandemic. But that year, Williams was a runner-up in the contest.
Vanessa Potkin pointed out that the Innocence Project organization, in addition to working with individual cases, promotes a change in the North American judicial system that currently hits mostly blacks and Latinos.
“I believe that our society would not tolerate the sentencing of innocent people if the majority of those involved were middle class or white. Immediately, there would be government action, and a state agency would be formed to study the situation, as happens, for example, every time there is a plane crash. But that’s not what happens with innocent prisoners,” he said.
Meanwhile, Williams said THE NATION that his main project at the moment is to collaborate in the release of other innocent comrades he has met in prison.
The ex-con compared his own experiences of wrongful imprisonment and imprisonment to the biblical story of joseph, the character from the Old Testament whom his brothers sold to Egypt, where he became the favorite of the pharaoh, and ended up helping his entire family in difficult times. Making the Bible character’s words his own, Williams concluded: “They took me to prison to hurt me, but God turned everything around for my good and preserved my life”.