Baton Rouge’s Archie Williams was wrongfully convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison at Angola State Penitentiary; once known as the bloodiest prison in America. 36 years later, DNA evidence proved Williams’ innocence and his conviction was exonerated. Less than a year after his release, he stunned the world with a powerful audition on America’s Got Talent.
“I went to prison, but I never let my mind go to prison,” Williams told AGT’s Terry Crews.
Archie’s story is shining a light on wrongful convictions and the disproportionate ways mass incarceration, notably in Louisiana, impacts communities of color.
“Louisiana has about 5,000 prisoners serving life in prison without the possibility of parole” said Jee Park, Executive Director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “That number is more than prisoners doing life sentences in five neighboring states.”
The Innocence Project New Orleans is a non-profit organization working to fight mass incarceration and racial oppression. It was through their work that Archie’s trial was reopened and DNA evidence proved his innocence.
“We focus on life sentences and reexamining them and whether they make sense given the error rate associated with life sentences” Park said. “If we can’t get it right 100% of the time, why are we even using that life sentence.”
According to the Innocence Project, mass incarceration is disproportionately impacting Black and brown people across Louisiana. According to IP-NO, 73% of Louisiana’s life prisoners are Black and while 32% of the state’s overall population is Black, that same demographic accounts for 67% of the state’s prison population; four times that of Whites.
“All but one of our clients that were wrongfully convicted were Black men” Park said. “And they were all Black men between the ages of 19 and 23 when they were wrongfully arrested, accused of something they didn’t do and knew nothing about… wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.”
Archie’s success on America’s Got Talent is raising awareness about the issue of mass incarceration and wrongful convictions. AGT Judge Simon Cowell was so moved by Archie’s story that he has become a national ambassador for the Innocence Project.
“Don’t let this be a momentary thing” Park said. “Don’t let this be a two week thing because you read an article and you were all jazzed up about it… become a sustained partner, in an organization, become a sustained donor, or a sustained volunteer, whatever it is, keep up your passion for it.”