It was late one morning in December 1982 when a Baton Rouge housewife saw someone approaching her home in the city's Hundred Oaks neighborhood. She opened the door a crack, unsure if it was a carpenter or plumber returning from their lunch break.

The woman realized almost immediately that it was neither, but instead a man who had knocked on her door weeks earlier asking for directions. Suddenly the intruder overpowered her and ordered her upstairs, where he held her at knifepoint and raped her repeatedly, then stabbed her twice and escaped after the victim's friend walked in on the horrific scene.

The days and months that followed would have unexpected and irreversible consequences not only for the victim herself but also for Archie Charles Williams, who was exonerated last week after spending almost four decades in prison for the brutal attack that occurred that morning — a crime Williams did not commit.

His 1983 conviction — based almost solely on the victim's positive identification of him in a photo lineup — allowed the real rapist to spend the next several years continuing to terrorize women across Baton Rouge.

Police finally arrested Stephen Forbes in 1986 after finding him on the scene of an attempted rape in progress. He later confessed to four additional rapes in the same area, some with distinct similarities to the Hundred Oaks attack. Recent developments in fingerprint technology matched Forbes to that crime for the first time earlier this month, resulting in Williams' exoneration.

The case highlights shortcomings within the criminal justice system that allowed prosecutors to convince jurors of guilt using flimsy evidence and emotional appeal. That error alone, which took decades to correct, cost Williams his freedom while additional victims suffered at the hands of a serial predator.


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Who was Stephen Forbes?

Forbes died in prison in 1996 while serving 20 years on an attempted rape conviction. He had suffered from severe mental illness for decades before his death.

Forbes' first documented encounter with law enforcement occurred in September 1984 when Baton Rouge police officers thwarted his efforts to jump off the Mississippi River bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. He was "snatched to safety" after one officer distracted Forbes by offering him a cigarette and then three others grabbed him, according to an Advocate report at the time.

That incident occurred when he was 20 years old — more than a year after Williams was convicted of the rape now pinned on Forbes.

Two years after that, one of the officers who had saved Forbes' life arrested him when police responded to reports of a woman's screams and disrupted an attempted rape in progress not far from the Hundred Oaks neighborhood. Officers discovered the 74-year-old victim bound and beaten on the living room floor of her South Baton Rouge apartment. They also found Forbes inside the apartment, wearing only a shirt and socks. Evidence recovered from the scene included a knife and toy gun.

Forbes, then 22, later confessed to four additional rapes: two in December 1985, one in April 1986 and one in May 1986. He told police that he had been raping women since he was 14, according to court documents. Authorities connected him to a "string of other crimes" in the Capital Heights, Lakeshore and College Drive neighborhoods.

All five of the rapes Forbes confessed to involved a white victim who was raped in her home at knifepoint, and the rapist stole money, or the victim's car, on his way out, according to court documents.

Forbes was booked on three counts of aggravated rape, one count of attempted aggravated rape, five counts of aggravated burglary, one count of armed robbery, two counts of auto theft, one count of crime against nature and one count of simple burglary.

Once in the court system, his unstable mental state kept him in transit between Feliciana Forensic — the state mental health facility where defendants are placed for mandated psychiatric treatment — and East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. He was initially declared incompetent to stand trial in 1986, then again in 1988.

One mental health professional who evaluated Forbes for the court wrote that the patient "is unaware of today's date or his birthday, and he gives a completely different story of his life history than he has in the past … He again expresses religious delusions and also reports auditory hallucinations." Another wrote: "The patient states that he continues to hear voices that tell him to kill himself. He stated the voice is the voice of Jesus and it is a rather deep voice."

He was later declared competent to assist in his defense and pleaded guilty in 1990 to attempted rape, which resulted in the 20-year sentence. The court also recommended that he receive mental health treatment while incarcerated. His cause of death was not immediately available.

The investigation

When the victim of the Hundred Oaks attack identified Archie Williams as her assailant, she had already been shown his mugshot in photo lineups multiple times before — viewing more than 100 photos before finally making a positive identification. Her friend, the woman who walked in on the scene, chose someone else out of a photo lineup and presented authorities with a different description. It's unlikely that Forbes' photo was in that lineup because he had no criminal record then.

The jury was presented with that information but nonetheless returned a guilty verdict for Williams.

His prior criminal record was not spotless but included no serious felony convictions. Williams had been convicted and served time on two separate burglary charges before his last arrest. He also had been arrested in at least two 1979 rapes but was never prosecuted in those cases.

That's the reason "police likely zeroed in on Mr. Williams in the first place and repeatedly showed (the victim) his photograph," Williams' attorneys with the Innocence Project argued in recent court filings, noting that prosecutors later opposed post-conviction DNA testing in the case "based on (the state's) belief that Mr. Williams was a serial assailant."

His recent exoneration came after advancements in fingerprint technology showed that prints lifted from the scene matched Forbes, not Williams. The national fingerprint database was revamped in 2014, which made the recent match possible. 

But investigators knew initially that they weren't Williams' prints. Prosecutors argued in response that they could have belonged to anyone who had passed through the house, including perhaps a carpenter or plumber. 

Williams' public defender, Kathleen Richey, firmly challenged that assertion during the trial. She pointed out that a casual visitor to the home wouldn't likely have left bloody prints near where the rape occurred. And she argued detectives had essentially stopped investigating after the witness identification.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III apologized to Williams on behalf of the state last week following a joint motion from both parties to vacate his conviction. Court documents show that Moore worked on the case in the early 1980s as an investigator in the DA's office. He said the investigation didn't raise red flags at the time but does highlight how much technology has advanced.

In addition to the lack of conclusive fingerprint evidence, Richey emphasized the discrepancy in descriptions of the perpetrator and the strength of Williams' alibi. Multiple relatives and acquaintances testified that he was asleep at his mother's house when the crime occurred, including minute details such as the soap opera on television late that morning.

She also cited research, which has been strengthened in the decades since, about the unreliable nature of eyewitness identification. Louisiana is now one of just two states where experts are banned from testifying in criminal trials about the identification process — even in cases that rest on a single identification — according to the Innocence Project New Orleans, which worked on Williams' case after his conviction.

The victim "is mistaken. Mr. Williams is not the right man," Richey said in her closing argument in 1983. "The real rapist will sit in this courtroom and laugh at the judicial system and terrorize other innocent women in their homes during the day.

"Putting Mr. Williams in jail for the rest of his life will not pay for that crime. We need to do more than just put somebody in jail."


Follow Jacqueline DeRobertis on Twitter, @jmderobertis.