Almost one year after being exonerated and freed from prison after serving nearly 37 years for a crime he didn't commit, singer Archie Williams brought his vocal talents to the stage in the America's Got Talent season premiere. After he was done, there wasn't a dry eye among the panel of judges.
Williams, 59, shared his story with the AGT cameras before taking the stage and explained how, when he was 22 years old, he was arrested for raping and stabbing a woman in Louisiana.
"I knew I was innocent, I didn't commit a crime. But being a poor black kid, I didn't have the ability to fight the state of Louisiana," Williams said, explaining that, despite three witnesses testifying that he was at home the night of the crime, and that his fingerprints didn't match those found at the scene, he was still prosecuted and convicted. "They wanted somebody to pay."
Williams was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, an infamously brutal prison known as Angola, where Williams said, "You had the choice to be either strong or weak, because you will be tried, and tested."
"Days turned into weeks, into months, into years and into decades. It's like a nightmare," he explained to AGT host Terry Crews as the pair spoke backstage, adding that he passed the time and dealt with the pain by singing while behind bars. "Freedom is of the mind. I went to prison but I never let my mind go to prison."
When asked how he feels now that he's been out of jail, Williams admitted it's "a feeling I'm still trying to grasp, that I'm still trying to digest."
"I watched America's Got Talent while in prison, and I would visualize myself being there," Williams said. "I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I'm here. Thank God."
Standing before the judges and the crowd in the AGT theater, Williams wasted no time stunning everyone with his formidable voice.
The singer delivered a powerful rendition of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and could barely contain his emotions as he belted out the classic song.
"Oh my gosh," judge Simon Cowell said in disbelief after his performance.
"I don't cry for a whole lot of things, but that really did it to me, I have to tell you," Heidi Klum said. "That was very powerful."
Howie Mandel remarked that, by being forced to serve more than three decades, "They took a life away from you."
"But if there's anything that can be given to you, it's the love that you are getting here," Mandel said, bringing Williams to tears.
"Even though you did 37 years, it was 37 years that didn't break you," newcomer judge Sofia Vergara shared. "I can picture you watching the show, hoping, hoping, holding on to something. And now you're here, and we love you."
Cowell shared his thoughts last, and explained that he will "never, ever listen to that song the same way" after hearing Williams' take on it, and that the tune "took on a whole different meaning" when considering Williams' backstory.
"You're a very, very courageous person… and you have a really good voice. You really, really do," Cowell added. "This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life."
After all four judges voted to move Williams on to the next round of the competition, the crowd in the theater, led by Mandel, began chanting "Archie" as he came down off the stage to give Cowell a hug.
America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.