Man Who Spent 37 Years Behind Bars on a Wrongful Conviction Gets Standing Ovation on AGT

Ashley Boucher

In 1983, Archie Williams was convicted of a rape he didn't commit.

Thirty-seven years later, Williams, 59, has been released and is finally able to share his impressive talents with the world — which is exactly what he did Tuesday night on America's Got Talent.

"I couldn't believe it was really happening," Williams shared of the day he was arrested on the AGT premiere Tuesday night on NBC.  "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."

Despite forensic evidence and testimony to Williams' innocence, he was convicted at age 22 and sentenced to life in prison.

"They wanted somebody to pay," he said in the package before he sang for AGT judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara, and Howie Mandel.

"I never let my mind go to prison," Williams told host Terry Crews, explaining that he music helped him survive — and he would watch AGT, dreaming of appearing on that stage himself.

Williams' case was taken on by the Innocence Project in the 1990s, and a fingerprint analysis last year ultimately proved his innocence. He was released from prison in March of last year.

Williams' freedom is "a feeling I'm still trying to grab. I'm still trying to digest that freedom that I have right now," he told Crews.

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Williams' dream of appearing on AGT was realized in Tuesday night's episode, during which he sang an emotional rendition of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" that earned him not only a unanimous spot in the next round of the show but a standing ovation — and a hug from Cowell as the audience chanted his name.

america's got talent Simon Cowell, Archie Williams

His performance was so inspiring that Cowell has now joined the Innocence Project as an ambassador.

"Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent," Cowell said in a press release. "What happened to Archie is tragic. While Archie’s voice is extraordinary, unfortunately his experience of being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is much more common than most people realize. There are thousands of innocent people in jails and prisons. I’m honored to become an Ambassador for the Innocence Project and want to do what I can to help more people like Archie."

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"Archie’s story is one of courage and hope — and I hope that by knowing more about his story and the Innocence Project, it will encourage more people to support the incredible work they do," Cowell continued. "These guys don’t just talk; they actually do something about it. The Innocence Project doesn’t just change people’s lives, they save people’s lives. For them to have stuck with Archie’s case for over 20 years is remarkable."

"This has really opened my eyes, my family’s eyes, and my friend’s eyes to this," the producer added. "So, I hope some good will come from this.”

"As you can see from the audition, Simon’s reaction to Archie and his story was immediate, powerful, and personal," said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck in a press release Tuesday. "He is committed to advancing the work of the Innocence Project and the cause of criminal justice reform writ large. He will be a compelling Ambassador for our work."

John was also blown away by Williams' story and performance.

"I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform 'Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me,'" the iconic singer tweeted on Tuesday. "The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela. Love, E xx."

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.