As Archie Williams took to the America’s Got Talent stage, he started up a rendition of Elton John’s famous song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” But the most remarkable thing about Williams’ appearance on season 15 of the show wasn’t actually his performance. You see, the singer had an almost unbelievable tale to tell – one that prompted even Elton himself to break down in tears.
Williams’ story started back in 1982, when a woman was stabbed and sexually assaulted in her Baton Rouge residence. Then Williams – just 22 at the time – had been arrested after the victim had selected him from a line-up of suspects. And in the absence of any DNA analysis, this was all the evidence the prosecution had needed.
Unfortunately, though, the woman in question hadn’t been asked to identify her attacker until several weeks after her terrifying ordeal. Then, she’d been handed a selection of photographs, with these having a shot of Williams among them. And while the victim did say that the authorities ought to search for a suspect who looked like Williams, she didn’t actually claim that he had been her attacker until later. In addition, a witness to the alleged crime wasn’t able to pick Williams out of a line-up.
It emerged that the accused man had an alibi, too. In court, three people – Williams’ sister, his mom and a pal – claimed that he had been taking a nap in his house when the assault had occurred. The victim also suggested that the attacker had towered over her, but while she was 5’7” tall, Williams, by contrast, stood at only 5’4”.
Furthermore, while there had been fingerprints discovered in the victim’s home – some of them near the blood marks the attack had caused – none of these belonged to Williams. At the trial, prosecutor Jeff Hollingsworth accepted this, claiming instead that the prints may have been left by a workman who’d been in the house.
Altogether, then, much of the prosecution’s case rested on the victim having identified Williams in the line-up. According to The New York Times, Hollingsworth duly told the court, “Do you think she didn’t remember that day? Would you forget that face if someone were doing that to you?” Williams’ own attorney, Kathleen S. Richey, pointed out, however, that the accused man didn’t have a scar on his body in the place where the victim had said her attacker did.
As the trial neared its end, Richey also spoke of the lack of Williams’ prints at the scene and said, “Fingerprints don’t lie. It would be a travesty and a danger to convict the wrong man. The real [attacker] will laugh at the judicial system and terrorize other innocent women in their homes during the day.”
Nonetheless, Williams went to prison for life without any chance of parole. And while he fiercely maintained his innocence, there was little choice but to wait. But there were a few things that Williams used to fill his days; for instance, while he was behind bars, he formed a group and began singing gospel songs.
In prison, Williams also had access to a television. There, he ultimately became a fan of America’s Got Talent – hoping that, one day, he would get to perform on the show himself. That wish, along with his strong religious faith, kept Williams going while locked up in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary – a place that has been nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South.”
Then, in 1995, Williams was able to send a letter to an organization called the Innocence Project. Addressing the co-founder Barry Scheck, he wrote, “As the years go by, I sit here year after year, [and] it’s like no one cares. By the grace of God, I’m still holding on hoping and praying in faith that someone will answer my letter and help me.”
Yet while the Innocence Project team ultimately agreed to take took Williams’ case on, progress was unfortunately rather slow in the beginning. Firstly, the authorities tried to deny the incarcerated man access to the U.S. fingerprint database, which would have helped to identify the prints that had been discovered at the scene of the assault all those years ago. The fingerprints weren’t searched for until 2009, in fact, with no match being found at that time.
But in 2019 things finally fell into place. In that year, the Innocence Project was able to match the fingerprints using the database of the FBI, and this information led to the real perpetrator: a serial attacker named Stephen Forbes. It later emerged that Forbes had died in 1996 while in the middle of a two-decade sentence for another crime.
As a result, Williams became, after so many years, a free man. The Innocence Project’s director of post-conviction litigation, Vanessa Potkin, said in a press release following the exoneration, “Mr. Williams first wrote to the Innocence Project for help in 1995. He was 35 years old. Today, he walked out of prison at age 58. There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured.”
“The Innocence Project fought alongside Mr. Williams for close to two and a half decades to be able to utilize advancements in forensic testing to prove his innocence,” Potkin’s statement continued. “Once a person is convicted, the criminal laws are rife with vast, insurmountable procedural hurdles intended to favor finality over truth.”
Williams was also given an official apology from local district attorney Hillar C. Moore III. and was deemed eligible to demand $250,000 in compensation – a sum that works out at less than $8,000 for each year spent wrongly incarcerated. Despite all of the time that he had lost, though, he has claimed that he felt no ill will towards the woman who’d incorrectly claimed he was her attacker.
Nonetheless, Williams struggled to adjust to life on the outside. In November 2016 he told the radio show All Things Considered, “Today’s technology is really my hardest part of what’s going on in today’s society. I’m learning… trying to get back into society like I once was.” He’d also entered a singing contest in New York.
And, eventually, Williams decided to audition for the show that had kept him entertained while in prison: America’s Got Talent. He tried out for the reality series in front of judges Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel, with the four all listening as he told his story.
To gasps of shock from the audience, an emotional Williams explained what had occurred to him more than three decades ago. “I couldn’t believe it was really happening,” he said of his incarceration. “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.”
“Three people testified that I was at home, but they wanted somebody to pay,” Williams continued. “I was sentenced to life in 80 years without the possibility of parole or probation. I was sent to Angola State Penitentiary. It was classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States. You had a choice to either be strong or weak.”
The former prisoner also recalled how he’d been “tried and tested” while stuck in prison. “Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades,” he explained. “It’s like a nightmare, you know.” And there could be absolutely no doubt that his time in jail had left him deeply affected emotionally.
Then, when America’s Got Talent presenter Terry Crews asked Williams, “How did you get through?” Williams answered, “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 I would pray and sing. This is how I got peace.”
“When the Innocence Project took my case, I just hoped that one day we’d prevail,” Williams continued. “This new technology got me back in court. It was ordered to, you know, run the fingerprints in the database. Within hours, they’d matched the prints to a serial rapist. After 37 years, I was released on March 31.”
Finally, Williams broke into his rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” It was a song that chimed with the former prisoner, containing as it does lyrics such as “I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free.” And after the audition had ended, Williams received a standing ovation.
The judges seemed awestruck, too. Cowell told Williams, “I will never, ever listen to that song in the same way ever again after you sang that. It took on a whole different meaning for me. And you’re a very, very courageous person.” Then, as the crowd cheered, Cowell added, “This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life.”
And even though Elton hadn’t been there to witness Williams singing his song, he was incredibly touched when he did see the rendition. The music legend tweeted in response, “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 courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring – the same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela.”
In the replies to John’s tweet, several people even suggested that one day he and Williams could perform the song as a duet. One wrote, “[Williams] has lived a life of hell, and yet [he is] such a gentle soul. Elton, maybe the two of you could sing this song together.” Others commented, meanwhile, that they, too, had been moved to tears.
Terry Crews also took to Twitter to help spread Williams’ story. Alongside the hashtag #AGTPremiere, he wrote, “37 YEARS IN JAIL FOR SOMEBODY ELSE’S CRIME! [Williams] deserves a lifetime of happiness. I’m so happy to see that he is free and thriving, and I wish you all of the success in the world.”
And Williams left a message on his own social media account, thanking people for the support that they had shown. On Instagram, he posted, “Since my audition aired, I have received countless messages, comments and donations from around the world. Some of you have shared your own heartbreaking stories of fighting for justice in the legal system.”
“I am praying for you,” the exonerated man continued. “I really wish there was a way for me to respond to each and every message. I want you to know that I am deeply touched by all the love and appreciate your support. God bless each and every one of you!” And in the comments beneath the post, people left further well-wishes.
Naturally, there was also considerable media interest in Williams and his story. Entertainment Tonight was among the outlets to interview the exonerated man, and on that occasion, he spoke about how he’d managed to deal with having been wrongly incarcerated for so long. Williams revealed, “I don’t know that it can be explained, but all it’s all about faith in God.”
Williams also recalled the day he’d been freed from prison, saying, “It was really unbelievable, really, to be honest. It was really hard to believe after all the denials that I received over the course of the years.” Now, his plan for the future was to “reach back and pull as many as I could.”
One thing that has come to light in the wake of Williams’ story is the truly concerning statistics surrounding false imprisonment. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more people than ever before are being freed from prison after their charges were dismissed. The Innocence Project claims, too, that members of the black community are still far more likely than whites to be wrongly convicted of serious crimes such as sexual assault and homicide.
In 2019 the criminal justice organization noted on its website, “The same trends that we witness at the front end of the system are also seen among black people who were exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. Black exonerees face disparities at every point in the system – from being more likely to be wrongly convicted to spending more time behind bars and, once exonerated, receiving less compensation than white exonerees.”
Nonetheless, Williams’ audition caused a positive chain reaction. For example, in May 2020 the Innocence Project put out a press release headlined “Archie Williams Inspires Simon Cowell to Become Innocence Project Ambassador.” Yes, Cowell had been so touched by Williams’ performance that he’d decided to use his clout to help others who were still behind bars.
“Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent. What happened to Archie is tragic,” Cowell was quoted as saying in the press release. “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.”
“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,” the music mogul 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.”
Potkin also contributed to the press release, adding, “All too often, voices like Archie’s are silenced and ignored. It takes years of fighting against all odds to overturn a wrongful conviction. For Innocence Ambassadors to use their platforms to bring attention to our cases and to bring to light the injustices of the legal system is extraordinarily impactful.”
Elton was still thinking of Williams, too. In May 2020 the formerly wrongfully convicted man told People, “Elton called me personally. He gave me an invitation to sing on his show when he comes back to the United States. It was definitely a surprise! He said he never heard anyone sing his song like that ever. It was really touching to him. It brought him to tears, he said. It was touching.”
And in June 2020 Williams discussed his audition once again – this time with The Advocate. Speaking of the musicians who’d inspired him, he said, “My queen of soul is Gladys Knight. My king of soul is Stevie Wonder, and my prince is Marvin Winans. [I like] 50 Cent [and] a lot of others. I listen to a variety of music, but those are my idols of music.”
As for his audition song, Williams revealed, “I’ve always been a fan of Elton John’s. The song related so much to my story, [and] I always took that as a personal song. I always said that once I get the chance to sing… [on American Idol], that would be the song.” And now that Williams’ story has been heard by a wider audience, it has the potential to make real change for others, too.
That link to Elton may even lead on to bigger and better things for Williams – especially as the megastar is so well connected. At one point, for instance, the singer was buddies with none other than Princess Diana. It’s safe to say, though, that Elton and the royal didn’t always see eye to eye.
Before Diana’s death in 1997, she and Elton John had in fact been good friends. At some point, however, the pair fell out – as Elton himself hasn’t been shy in admitting. And in 2019 the pop icon made yet more revelations about his relationship with the princess in his autobiography Me. In the book, the musician not only chose to speak out about what had happened to cause the rift between himself and Diana, but also what his thoughts and fears for the royal were at the time.
That wasn’t all, either. You see, Me also contains explosive revelations about what Diana and the rest of the royal family were like behind closed doors. And as someone who ended up more or less making his way into the royal inner circle, Elton had been privy to some surprising scenes.
Naturally, then, the autobiography caused quite a stir when it was released – not least because Elton also chose to divulge some eyebrow-raising secrets about fellow musician Rod Stewart. But when it came to Diana, he was gentle with her. In fact, even when the star spilled the beans on that feud, it became clear that he misses his old friend.
Elton and the princess had initially encountered each other in 1981 – so, before Diana married Prince Charles and became an official member of the royal family. Specifically, the two had a run-in at a 21st birthday bash for Prince Andrew, after which they had went on to become very close. And eventually it seemed that Diana and Elton had something big in common: AIDS awareness and research – a cause dear to both their hearts.
Elton got to know Diana’s sons, Harry and William, too. And in 2018 he wrote a piece for Time magazine honoring Harry as one of the Time 100 that year. In the article, the star revealed, “I first met an extremely shy and sweet Prince Harry at a private lunch at Kensington Palace, given by his mother Princess Diana for Gianni Versace and me many years ago.”
Elton went on, “What a joy it has been to see that young boy grow to inherit his mother’s warmth, sense of humor and courage to stand up and champion the causes he truly believes in.” Diana was indeed seemingly unafraid to get involved in crusades that others may have wished she’d avoided. Perhaps in a bid to fight misapprehensions about HIV, for example, she allowed herself to be photographed holding the hands of AIDS patients – proving as a result that the disease wasn’t transferable by touch.
So, what actually led Diana and Elton to fall out? The singer spoke about the feud not long after Diana had died, incidentally. It was 1997, and great swathes of Britain seemed to be in mourning for the princess. And, famously, Elton performed the song “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral before releasing the track in order to raise money for Diana’s favorite charities.
At that time, Elton spoke to the BBC’s David Frost about his relationship with Diana. Back then, he revealed, “[Diana and I] did have a little falling out earlier in the year over a charity event. We did write each other letters, which neither of us responded to. It was only after the tragic death of Gianni Versace that we actually spoke.”
Versace was a mutual friend of Elton and Diana, and he had actually been involved in the incident that had led the pair to become estranged. Tragically, though, the fashion designer was slaughtered outside his mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan on July 15, 1997. And Diana subsequently attended Versace’s funeral alongside Elton in what would prove to be one of her final public appearances.
Meanwhile, in Me, Elton gave his thoughts about Diana’s own funeral – and some of his words were rather damning. “William and Harry looked completely shell-shocked,” he wrote of his late friend’s children. “They were 15 and 12, and I thought the way they were treated that day was absolutely inhuman. They were forced to walk through the streets of London behind their mother’s coffin, told to show no emotion and look straight ahead.”
Then, Elton wrote, once the funeral had finished, he had gone to a studio to record “Candle in the Wind” for release. After that, he had finally gone home, where grief had overcome him. “I hadn’t felt able to show emotion all day,” he explained in Me. “I’d had a job to do, and how I felt about Diana’s death might have interfered with my ability to do it.”
Unfortunately, “Candle in the Wind” would also haunt Elton for some time. “In the end, I started feeling really uncomfortable with the single’s longevity,” he wrote. “Its success meant there was footage of Diana’s funeral week after week on Top of the Pops. It almost felt like wallowing in her death, as if the mourning for her had got out of hand.”
Elton went on, “And I didn’t want to do anything to prolong [the wallowing] any further. So when Oprah Winfrey asked me on her talk show to discuss the funeral, I said no.” He also decided to never release “Candle in the Wind” again. “I’ve always tried to avoid the topic with journalists,” the star added. “It wasn’t that I wanted to forget it – or [Diana]. I just wanted life to get back to some semblance of normality.”
Nevertheless, Elton ultimately returned to that period of his life when writing Me. And in the book, he also revealed the details of the “surreal” Palace party at which he had first met Diana. “Because the Queen was there, and no one wanted to cause any offence to the royal sensibilities, the disco was turned down about as low as you could get without switching it off altogether. You could literally hear your feet moving around on the floor over the music,” he wrote.
And at the event, Elton mingled with other royal family members – including the Queen herself. He wrote, “Princess Anne asked me to dance with her to ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley. Well, I say ‘dance’: I ended up just awkwardly shuffling from foot to foot, trying to make as little noise as I could so that I didn’t drown out the music… Then the Queen appeared, carrying her handbag. She walked over and asked if she could join us.”
Elton went on, “So, now I was trying to dance as inaudibly as possible with Princess Anne and the Queen – still holding her handbag – while what appeared to be the world’s quietest disco played Bill Haley. I tried my best to come up with a facial expression that suggested this was a perfectly normal state of affairs.”
Help was at hand, however, with Diana providing a breath of fresh air in that awkward situation. Elton explained in Me, “Anyway, that night in 1981, [Diana] arrived in the ballroom, and we immediately clicked. We ended up pretending to dance the Charleston while hooting at the disco’s feebleness.” And with that, the two began a long and largely fond relationship.
In his autobiography, though, Elton also shared a rather remarkable story about the Queen herself. Once, in fact, he had allegedly witnessed her slap another royal family member. “In private, [the Queen] could be hilarious,” the singer recalled. “At another party, I saw her approach Viscount Linley and ask him to look in on his sister, who’d been taken ill and had retired to her room.”
Yet, according to Elton, the monarch wasn’t best pleased with the viscount’s response. “When he repeatedly tried to fob her off, the Queen lightly slapped him across the face, saying ‘Don’t’ – SLAP – ‘argue’ – SLAP – ‘with’ – SLAP – ‘me’ – SLAP – ‘I’ – SLAP – ‘am’ – SLAP – ‘THE QUEEN!’” And, naturally, Elton was rather taken aback. “As [Viscount Linley] left, [the Queen] saw me staring at her, gave me a wink and walked off,” he added.
And Elton revealed that he was similarly amazed at how he had ended up mingling in such lofty circles. He said in Me, “No matter how funny or normal the royal family seemed – whether they were asking me if I’d done any coke before I went on stage as Princess Alexandra once did, or winking at me after slapping a nephew across the face – there’d inevitably come a moment where I’d find myself thinking, ‘This is just bizarre. I’m a musician from a council house on Pinner Road. What am I doing here?’”
But Diana, Elton added, was different to other members of the family. “With Diana, it wasn’t like that. She was blessed with an incredible social ease – an ability to make people feel totally comfortable in her company,” he explained. “Her kids have inherited it, Prince Harry in particular; he’s exactly the same as his mum: [he has] no interest in formality or grandeur.”
Elton continued, “That famous photo of her holding an AIDS patient’s hand at the London Middlesex Hospital – that was Diana. I don’t think she was necessarily trying to make a big point, although obviously she did. In that moment, she changed public attitudes to AIDS forever. She’d just met someone suffering, dying in agony – why wouldn’t you reach out and touch them? It’s the natural human impulse, to try to comfort someone.”
Elton went even further in his praise for Diana, too, describing her in the book as “fabulous company – the best dinner party guest.” Furthermore, he added, “If I was bowled over by Diana, it was nothing compared with the impact she could have on straight men. They seemed completely to lose their minds in her presence: they were just utterly bewitched.” And to prove his point, the pop star told a tale that involved many famous names.
According to Elton, he and his partner, David Furnish, had thrown their own dinner party at the time of the production of the first Lion King movie. And to make up the numbers, the couple had invited Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and his wife, George Michael, Richard Curtis, Emma Freud, Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere as well as Diana herself. However, Elton revealed that, during the get-together, “the most peculiar scene developed.”
Apparently, Gere began talking with Diana at the party, while she seemed equally as interested in him. Elton divulged, “[Diana] was separated from Charles by this point, and Richard had broken up with Cindy Crawford. They ended up sitting in front of the fireplace together, locked in rapt conversation.”
But another party guest was not seemingly approving. Elton continued, “As the rest of us chatted, I couldn’t help notice a strange atmosphere in the room. Judging by the kind of looks he kept shooting them, Diana and Richard Gere’s newly blossoming friendship was not going down well with Sylvester Stallone at all.”
Elton speculated, “I think [Stallone] may have turned up to the party with the express intention of picking Diana up – only to find his plans for the evening ruined.” Yet an even more awkward situation would soon rear its head, according to the musician. When dinner was served, Stallone and Gere were allegedly both absent, and so Furnish went to find them. Upon his return, though, Elton’s now-husband reported back that there was “a situation.”
Somewhat alarmingly, Gere and Stallone had supposedly been about to fist-fight over Diana when Furnish found them. And sitting down for a meal together apparently didn’t improve the tension. “After dinner, Diana and Richard Gere resumed their position together in front of the fire, and Sylvester stormed off home,” Elton wrote.
Elton also claimed that Stallone had announced, “I never would have come if I’d known Prince f**kin’ Charming was gonna be here. If I’d wanted her, I would’ve taken her!” This outburst reportedly caused the musician and Furnish to crack up in laughter after Stallone’s car had gone. Diana, meanwhile, “seemed completely unruffled” by the furor, Elton added.
The veteran star pondered, “Maybe [Diana] hadn’t realised what was happening. Or maybe stuff like that happened all the time, and she was used to it. After she died, people started talking about something called the Diana Effect, meaning the way she managed to change the public’s attitudes to the Royal Family or to AIDS or bulimia or mental health. But every time I heard the phrase, I thought about that night.”
And in the book, Elton eventually spoke about the incident that had driven him and Diana apart. “She was a very dear friend for years, and then, completely unexpectedly, we fell out,” he wrote. “The cause was a book Gianni Versace put together called Rock and Royalty – a collection of portraits by great photographers. The proceeds were going to the AIDS Foundation, and she agreed to write the foreword.”
The musician claimed, however, that Diana had ultimately “got cold feet” and changed her mind about supporting the project. He added, “I think Buckingham Palace didn’t like the idea of a member of the royal family having anything to do with a book that featured shots of naked guys with towels draped around them.”
Elton went on, “At the last moment, Diana withdrew her foreword. She said she had no idea of the book’s contents, which just wasn’t true. Gianni had shown her the whole thing, and she had said she loved it.” Diana’s friend was not impressed at this sudden change of heart, either, and decided to tell her so.
And Elton explained in his memoir what he had chosen to do next. “I wrote back to [Diana], calling her out, telling her how much money she had cost the AIDS Foundation, reminding her that she had seen the book,” he said. “The letter I got back was very formal and severe: ‘Dear Mr John…’” The friendship had reached its breaking point.
Elton wrote of his feelings, “I was angry with [Diana], but I was also worried. She seemed to be losing touch with all sorts of really close friends who would be honest with her and surrounding herself instead with people who told her what she wanted to hear. I knew from personal experience [that] that wasn’t a healthy situation.”
After the death of Versace, however, Diana reached out to her old friend. “I didn’t speak to [Diana] again until the day Gianni was murdered,” Elton revealed. “I don’t even know how she got hold of the number; we hadn’t had the house in Nice for long. She was just down the coast, in St. Tropez, on Dodi Fayed’s yacht.”
Elton continued, “She asked how I was, if I’d spoken to Donatella [Versace’s sister]. Then she said, ‘I’m so sorry. It was a silly falling-out. Let’s be friends.’ She came with us to the funeral, looking incredible. When she walked in, the paparazzi in the church went crazy. It was like the biggest star in the world had arrived, which I suppose she had.”
And, as many know, Diana and Elton sat next to each other during the funeral. The star mentioned in his book, “I feel I should point out that the famous shot they got of her supposedly consoling me – where she’s leaning forward towards me, speaking, while I’m red-eyed and glazed with grief – is one moment in the service where she wasn’t doing anything of the sort. They snapped her just as she was leaning past me, reaching for a mint that David [had] offered her.”
And, finally, Elton talked about the last time that he contacted Diana. “I wrote to her [after the funeral], thanking her, and she wrote back offering to be a patron of the AIDS Foundation and asking if I would get involved in her landmine charity,” he wrote. “We were going to meet up next time we were both in London to have lunch and discuss it. But there wasn’t a next time.”
So, while Elton and Diana’s relationship may have been marred by that brief parting of ways, the spat would have been so much worse had they not made up before Diana died. And it appears that the pop icon still holds the late royal in great esteem. Speaking on the TV show Lorraine in 2018, Elton said of the princess, “She was very much loved. She was a controversial figure in some respects – but not to me. I loved her because she did so much for AIDS, and she was a great friend to me. We had our fallings out, but we reconciled in the end.”