After Being Wronged By The Law, Singer Archie Williams Gets A Second Chance

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 12:13 am

Archie Williams likes his odds. He's made it through two rounds in the legendary Amateur Night competition at New York's Apollo Theater, where he'll perform Wednesday evening. "I'mma win," he says, chuckling. "That's how I feel."

Willams, 58, says it's always been his dream to sing on that vaunted stage. But his backstory is different from the average contestant's: His Apollo debut comes after 36 years in prison for a 1982 crime he didn't commit.

"He was just walking down the street one day when the police snatched him up, and ended up putting his photograph in a photo array that was viewed by a woman who had been attacked in her home," says Williams' lawyer, Vanessa Potkin.

The woman didn't identify Williams at first, but she was shown his photo two more times. Eventually she told the police that it was him, and he was convicted for rape and attempted murder, entering prison at 22. "He was sent to Angola prison [the nickname for the Louisiana State Penitentiary], basically told he's going to die there," Potkin says.

Prison was tough, but Williams found ways to endure. Coming from a talented family in Baton Rouge, Williams formed a band. "That was the first place I was ever able to sing gospel in," he says. "It was like a new birth there."

Around 12 years into his sentence, Williams reached out to the Innocence Project in New York, where Potkin works. She says they realized forensic evidence could help prove his innocence, but the state fought tooth and nail — refusing to give them access to the case evidence, including the fingerprints that had been collected at the crime scene.

"Really just blocked the way successfully for two decades, until a woman named Commissioner Kimble took the bench," she says. "She ordered that the fingerprints be searched in the FBI database; she said, you know, we're gonna get to the truth here. And within eight hours, those prints were matched to a serial assailant, and Archie's innocence was proven."

Today, Williams is free, but entering back into society as a 58-year-old hasn't been easy: The Innocence Project can help him pay for an apartment, but they say they're having trouble finding anyone willing to rent to him. More generally, Williams has had to acclimate to sweeping cultural changes: "Today's technology is really my hardest part of what's going on in today's society," he says. "I'm learning ... trying to get back into society like I once was."

He isn't letting any of that hold back his musical dream, though. For his performance at the Apollo, he's chosen a Stevie Wonder song, "I Wish." He says to him, the lyrics are spiritual.

"I'm pretty sure everyone can relate to 'I Wish,'" Williams says. "It talks about when we was kids, the things we used to do — that's what the song is all about. 'I wish those days would come back once more. Why did those days have to go?' "

If Williams is successful Wednesday, he'll be eligible to sing for the $20,000 grand finale prize on November 27.

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And now the story of a second chance. Archie Williams spent 36 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Tonight, he's performing at New York City's Apollo Theater in the amateur night competition. NPR's Rose Friedman reports.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: Archie Williams likes his odds.

ARCHIE WILLIAMS: I'mma (ph) win. That's how I feel. I'mma win.

FRIEDMAN: He's made it through two rounds, and he's pretty psyched.

WILLIAMS: I always dreamed of going to the amateur night at Apollo, and my dream has come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIEDMAN: I met Archie Williams in his lawyer's office at the Innocence Project in New York. He was goofing around in the hallway, not unlike a kid letting off some steam.

You went into prison when you were 22.

WILLIAMS: Two.

FRIEDMAN: Do you feel like you're picking up where you left off? Do you feel like 22?

WILLIAMS: I sure do. And I still do the things that I did when I was 22 right now.

FRIEDMAN: Mainly, that's singing. Williams says he grew up in a talented family in Baton Rouge. But his musical career was cut short by his arrest for a 1982 rape and attempted murder. His lawyer Vanessa Potkin picks up the story.

VANESSA POTKIN: He was just, you know, walking down the street one day when the police snatched him up and ended up putting his photograph in a photo array that was viewed by a woman who had been attacked in her home.

FRIEDMAN: The woman didn't identify Williams at first, but she was shown his photo two more times. Eventually, she told police it was him, and he was convicted.

POTKIN: You know, he's sent to Angola Prison, basically told he's going to die there - you know, life sentence, no possibility of parole.

FRIEDMAN: He endured prison life, but there was one small saving grace - he was able to form a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Go make a change. We are the people.

WILLIAMS: That's the first place I was ever able to sing gospel. And it was Angola, so I was, like, a new birth there.

FRIEDMAN: Also during that time, Williams reached out to the Innocence Project. He was 12 years into his sentence.

POTKIN: We recognized that forensic science could help prove him innocent. The state fought tooth and nail.

FRIEDMAN: Potkin says the state of Louisiana wouldn't give them access to evidence, including the fingerprints that had been collected at the crime scene.

POTKIN: Really just blocked the way successfully for two decades until a woman named Commissioner Kimble took the bench. She ordered that the fingerprints be searched in the FBI's database. She said, you know, we're going to get to the truth here. And within eight hours, those prints were matched to a serial assailant, and Archie's innocence was proven.

FRIEDMAN: But entering back into society as a 58-year-old isn't easy. The Innocence Project can help Williams pay for an apartment, but they say they're having trouble finding anyone who will rent to him. And he's missed out on a lot.

WILLIAMS: Well, technology - today's technology is really my hardest part of what's going on in today's society. I'm learning piano and literacy, computer. So I'm trying to get back into society like I once was because I lost so much.

FRIEDMAN: For his performance at the Apollo, Williams has chosen a Stevie Wonder song. He says, to him, the lyrics are spiritual.

WILLIAMS: I'm pretty sure everyone can relate to "I Wish." It all talks about when we was kids, the things we used to do. That's what the song is all about. I wish those days would come back once more. Why did those days have to go? (Singing) Sneaking out the back door, hang out with those hoodlum friends of mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Greeted at the back door with, boy, thought I told you not to go outside.

FRIEDMAN: If Archie Williams is successful tonight, he'll be eligible to sing for the $20,000 grand finale prize on November 27.

Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH")

WONDER: (Singing) From whooping your behind - I wish those days could come back once more. I wish those days... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.