In March, Archie Williams auditioned for the 2020 season of "America’s Got Talent" (AGT).
Before he sang, he said that he had spent 36 years in a Louisiana prison for a crime he did not commit.
Williams’s soulful voice and touching backstory brought all four celebrity judges to their feet. Heidi Klum wiped away tears and pre-COVID audience members chanted his name. Simon Cowell said Williams’s audition was one he will never forget.
After being selected for AGT, which films at Universal Studios, Williams came to Long Beach to stay with his aunt. Saundra Christmas and her daughter, Cassaundra Christmas, supported Williams through many rounds of competition. And he supported them.
On May 31, looters attacked Saundra’s store in downtown Long Beach, Mabel’s Gourmet Pralines. Williams fearlessly entered the shop and rescued her equipment.
In describing the evening, Williams said, “I didn’t think about the outcome. It didn’t matter, because it’s family.”
Williams said he and his family have always been there for one another. In 1982, 22-year-old Archie found himself embroiled in a legal nightmare after a woman from a prominent Louisiana family was stabbed and raped. The victim struggled to make an identification and described her attacker as being 5’9’’ to 5’11’ tall. A controversial photo ID led to the arrest of 5’4” Archie Williams. Saundra Christmas went to Louisiana for the trial and was heartbroken when he was sentenced.
Williams refused to let his mind be imprisoned, even though his body was. He said he sang and prayed as the years went on. He would watch "America’s Got Talent" and visualize himself being onstage.
In 1995, Williams learned about the Innocence Project, an organization that works to free the wrongly incarcerated. The group sought to have fingerprints from the crime scene analyzed, but its requests were repeatedly refused.
“It was a malicious process,” Cassaundra said. “Everything they filed was denied.”
Cassaundra currently works as a paralegal and plans to attend law school. She said she grew up hearing about Archie’s case and was determined to fight for his freedom. Luckily, her goal has already been achieved. In 2019, a new judge permitted Next Generation Identification (NGI) analysis of the fingerprints in Archie Williams’s case.
“Within 24 hours, the database found that the fingerprints belonged to a serial rapist in the area,” Cassaundra said.
On March 21, 2019, Archie Williams’ conviction was vacated. He was released after serving 36 years for someone else’s crime.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III, told Williams in court, “As a representative of the state, I apologize.”
Despite losing decades of his life, Archie Williams is focusing on the positive. He said being a Top Ten Finalist on "America’s Got Talent" was the best thing that has ever happened to him. He loved having the opportunity to sing and tell his story. Now that taping has concluded, he wants to use his time to help other innocent prisoners gain their freedom. Simon Cowell has pledged to do the same.
“There are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons,” Cowell said. “I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the Innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie.”
Cowell is not the only celebrity impressed by Archie Williams. After hearing Williams’s rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Sir Elton John called and invited Archie to sing with him when his U.S. tour resumes. Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, taped a message saying that she is proud of Archie and she cannot wait to see what he does.
But Williams’s biggest fans are the family members, who have always been by his side. Saundra Christmas supported her nephew during his trial and his exoneration.
“It was such a blessing to witness Archie’s release from prison to start his new life of freedom and to live his life-long dreams,” Saundra said.
She helped him relaunch his life and he helped her relaunch her business. Because family is everything.