After Being Wronged By The Law, Singer Archie Williams Gets A Second Chance Williams was exonerated after 36 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Now he's fulfilling a lifelong dream on the stage of New York's Apollo Theater.
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After Being Wronged By The Law, Singer Archie Williams Gets A Second Chance

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

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

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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...

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