When Archie Williams was freed last spring after serving almost four decades for crimes he didn't commit, his mind kept returning to the thousands of men he was leaving behind — an untold number facing wrongful convictions and excessive sentences in Louisiana's massive prison system.

"I'm not free until they're free," he said just moments after stepping outside the Baton Rouge courthouse where a judge had declared him innocent.

Now those men will be watching from behind bars as Williams fulfills one of his biggest dreams: singing on"America's Got Talent." The NBC reality competition's latest season premieres Tuesday evening with Williams among the contestants.

A video of his audition went viral almost immediately after it was shared on social media last week, shedding light on an issue that often goes unnoticed.

Williams was sentenced to life without parole for the 1982 rape and stabbing of a woman at her Baton Rouge home after the victim identified him in a photographic lineup despite almost no other evidence supporting his guilt. He was exonerated after new fingerprint technology matched another man to the crimes.

During his audition Williams described watching "America's Got Talent" when he was at Angola.

"I would visualize myself being there," he said. "I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I'm here. Thank God. I know it's the chance of a lifetime."

He was released from prison in March 2019 after attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans worked with a national organization also called the Innocence Project that fights wrongful convictions. The groups requested additional fingerprint testing.

One of his attorneys, Vanessa Potkin, said Williams "never gave up fighting" even after he was sent to Angola at age 23 and "told by the legal system that he would die in prison."

"He has an incredible spirit and music helped carry him through what none of us could imagine," she said. "As far as we are concerned, the moment Archie stepped foot on the stage he already won — he personifies the triumph of the human spirit."

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Archie Williams, center, who has been serving a life sentence after conviction for a 1982 rape, poses for a picture with, from left, niece Nicole Martin, sister Sheila Varner of Monroe, Innocence Project Director of Post Conviction Litigation Vanessa Potkin, aunt Saundra Christmas of Long Beach, Ca., Innocence Project co-founder barry Scheck and sister Charlotte Alexander, of New Orleans. They're outside 19th Judicial Courthouse in Baton Rouge, Thursday, March 21, 2019 after a hearing finally exonerated and freed him, after fingerprint technology pointed to another suspect decades after his conviction.

She noted that Louisiana holds the nation's highest incarceration rate and highest percentage of people serving life without parole sentences — an estimated 15 percent of the state prison population.

One of them is Hayward Jones, who met Williams decades ago at Angola. He described how it felt watching his friend's recent audition.

"It brought tears to my eyes hearing his story like that even though I have known him for many years," Jones said in an email from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where he now runs a mentoring program for other inmates. "His story and so many others are the reason for second chances."

Jones said he watched Williams become "a very passionate and loving person who took what was given him and did not become more bitter and angry, though he could have."

When asked during his audition how he got through his imprisonment, Williams pointed to music: "Freedom is of the mind. I went to prison but I never let my mind go to prison. When you're faced with dark times, what I would do is pray and sing. This is how I got peace."

He noted the lack of evidence from his trial, at which three people testified he was at home with other relatives when the crime occurred.

"I couldn't believe it was really happening," he said. "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."

In the audition Williams sings Elton John's classic "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." His performance left the show's four judges — including the notoriously blunt Simon Cowell — and audience in a tearful awe.

"Archie, I will never, ever listen to that song in the same way ever again after you sang that. It took on a whole new meaning for me," Cowell told Williams. "By the way, you have a really good voice. … This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life."

The judges gave Williams a standing ovation and voted with no hesitation to allow him on the show.

"Even though you did 37 years, it's 37 years that didn't break you," actress Sofia Vergara told him. "I can picture you watching the show, hoping and hoping, holding to something. And now you're here, and we love you."

Advocate staff writer Judy Bergeron contributed to this report.


'America's Got Talent'

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesdays

CHANNEL: WVLA, Channel 33 (cable Channel 3 in Baton Rouge, KLAF, Channel 15 (cable Channel 3 in Lafayette) and WDSU, Channel 6 (cable Channel 7 in New Orleans)

INFO: https://www.nbc.com/americas-got-talent


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.