by Jayson Hawkins
Archie Williams seemed doomed to die in prison. Sentenced to life without parole for a 1982 stabbing and rape, he managed to survive in Louisiana’s Angola as months bled into years, and years pooled into decades. Where others may have lost hope, Williams clung to one forlorn fact: He is an innocent man.
The circumstances of Williams’ case highlight how flawed the American system of justice can be. The victim was a Baton Rouge woman, who was sexually assaulted and then stabbed in her home when a neighbor tried to intervene. Almost a month later, police asked the victim if she could identify her attacker in a photo array that included Williams. She did not pick him but said the perpetrator looked like him. The police produced a second array that also had Williams’ picture, and she repeated that it was not him but someone who looked similar. Additionally, both the victim and her neighbor described the assailant as between 5 feet, 9 inches and 5 feet, 11 inches. Williams stands 5 feet, 4 inches.
Investigators interested in finding the guilty party rather than merely scoring a conviction might have considered other suspects, but the victim was subjected to a third photo array featuring Williams. This time, she chose him. After these repetitive exposures, she also picked Williams out of a lineup, though the neighbor selected someone else.
Louisiana law did not allow an eyewitness expert at Williams’ trial to explain several factors that led the victim to misidentify him. Almost no other evidence implicated Williams. None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched his own, and three people testified he was asleep at home that night. DNA testing was not in use yet, and a serology test only showed Williams was part of a significant portion of the male population who would have been the source of the semen in the rape kit.
Williams contacted the Innocence Project in 1995. The group began advocating for DNA testing in his case the following year, but the rape kit was not analyzed and admissible under Louisiana statutes until 2009. The DNA it detected belonged to the victim’s husband. Thus, the actual attacker’s identity remained unknown. That same year, the state ran prints from the crime scene through the FBI’s identification system but came up empty. Williams’ requests for additional searches bore fruit in 2014 when the Next Generation Fingerprint Identification updated the old technology. It turned up a match with Stephen Forbes, a man charged with one rape who had confessed to four others.
Even though those crimes occurred in the same area and timespan as the assault Williams was accused of, the police never questioned Forbes about it. He later died in prison.
Williams walked free on March 21, 2019.
Louisiana lawmakers no longer allow police to use many of the practices that helped falsely convict Williams, but experts on eyewitness identification still cannot testify for defendants at their trials. Only Nebraska has a similar ban.
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