Archie Williams was wrongly convicted of a 1983 crime and incarcerated for over 36 years

By Karen Mizoguchi
August 11, 2020 10:01 PM
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Archie Williams had audiences at home cheering for him once again.

After an unforgettable audition performance of Elton John's hit song "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," Williams was back on America's Got Talent to showcase his vocal talents for the live quarterfinals on Tuesday.

The standout contestant, who was wrongly incarcerated for over three decades, performed a moving cover of Steve Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today" in front of judges Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara as well as guest judge Kelly Clarkson at the Universal Studios Hollywood lot, in accordance with safety guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time, AGT had a virtual audience featuring audio and video of fans watching Tuesday's live episode, similar to the virtual stands in the current NBA season.

Head judge and executive producer Simon Cowell did not take part in Tuesday's episode after undergoing back surgery on Saturday evening. "Simon, we are sending lots of AGT love and best wishes and we hope to see you soon," host Terry Crews said at the top of the show. (Cowell, 60, will not be participating in Wednesday's results episode.)

"I have waited years for this. I love Simon but I'm getting real used to this chair buddy," said Clarkson, who filled in for Cowell. "I didn't mind stepping in for him, I love the show."

Clarkson, 38, raved about Williams, who swiftly made it past the Judge Cuts round weeks ago. "Thank you so much for that, your story is an incredible testimony, it's powerful," she said. "I don't want your story to overshadow [your singing]. Your tone is so cool. It was incredible to hear such a great storyteller. Those are my favorite kind of singers. You did a really great job."

"Spectacular, you deserve this more than anyone," Vergara said.

"I can feel all the pain you went through," Klum said. "It couldn't be more perfect."

Williams' talent is not the only part of his story that has shined an enormous spotlight on him — his newfound freedom and adversity have also inspired countless viewers.

In 1983, Williams, who was 22 at the time, was convicted of aggravated rape and attempted murder in Louisiana. Fingerprint evidence did not match his own, and witnesses testified that he was at his own home the night of the incident. However, Williams was sentenced to life in prison at Louisiana State Penitentiary without the possibility of parole.

At the 12-year mark of his prison sentence, Williams reached out to the Innocence Project with a request for the organization to exonerate him. Thanks to years of their hard work and new fingerprint-matching technology, Williams' case was overturned due to the fingerprints found at the scene of the crime matching a serial rapist.

After being incarcerated for more than 36 years, Williams was released from prison in March 2019.

"I used gospel music to reach out to people, mostly my time in prison," he told PEOPLE in May after his audition went viral online. "When I first got there, I got me a band and I started to reach out to people there with my music."

As for winning season 15, Williams said he has his eye on the $1 million prize. "My main goal is to win, I know I'm going to win. I'm confident in that," he said.

Tuesday's episode showed the first 11 of the 44 acts. Five will advance to the semifinal round, when the viewer votes are announced on Wednesday's broadcast.

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