Williams was sentenced to life in prison without parole in ’83 for a rape and stabbing he did not commit
(Baton Rouge, LA – March 21, 2019) Today, Commissioner Kinasiyumki Kimble of the 19th Judicial District Court of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, vacated the wrongful conviction of Archie Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1983 for a rape and stabbing he did not commit. The commissioner’s ruling was based on new evidence of Williams’ innocence–a search in the FBI’s national fingerprint database which linked fingerprints left at the crime scene to the true assailant, a man who committed at least five other rapes in the years after the 1982 rape for which Williams was wrongly convicted. Williams’ case is one of the Innocence Project’s oldest cases and boldly underscores the urgent need for every state to have laws that ensure wrongfully convicted people who don’t have DNA evidence in their cases can still get back into court based on other critical evidence of innocence, including a statutory right to access fingerprint databases.
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“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,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project. “Once a person is convicted, the criminal laws are rife with vast, insurmountable procedural hurdles intended to favor finality over truth. While we have come a long way in allowing convicted people access to evidence for DNA testing, we have a long way to go when non-DNA evidence of innocence is at issue. Given what we now know about wrongful convictions, that they occur at alarming rates, we must create pathways for truth to prevail.”
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Williams was 22 years old when he was arrested and stood trial for the 1982 rape and stabbing of a woman in her Baton Rouge home. The assailant forced his way into the victim’s house and attacked her in an upstairs bedroom. When a neighbor entered the house, the assailant stabbed the victim. The assailant initially closed the door to the bedroom, but then forced the neighbor inside before leaving. Williams’ conviction rested almost exclusively on a single cross-racial eyewitness misidentification made by the victim. Serology testing—DNA testing was not available at the time—of semen in the victim’s rape kit included Williams, along with a large segment of the population who could have been the source.
From the start, there was evidence that the victim’s identification of Williams was unreliable. Nearly one month after the crime, the victim was shown a photo array that included Williams, but she did not select him as the assailant. She did, however, tell police officers that when they look for the assailant, they should look for an individual who resembled Williams’ photo. Police showed the victim a second array that depicted profile pictures. For a second time, she did not select Williams as the perpetrator but again told police to look for someone who resembled him. It was only after the victim was shown a third photo array with Williams’ photo that she selected him as the assailant. Both the victim and neighbor were shown an in-person line up with Williams. The neighbor selected a filler, not Williams. The victim, now having seen Williams a fourth time, identified him.
“There are many innocent people at Angola—guys who have served over 50 years. I’m happy to be cleared finally, but I’m not free until they are free.” — Williams
The victim’s and neighbor’s description of the perpetrator also suggested that Williams had been misidentified. The victim, who was 5’7”, described the perpetrator as being taller than her, about 5’9” to 5’11”. The neighbor, who is 5’4” and was wearing three-inch heels, testified the assailant was a few inches taller than her. Williams is significantly shorter than the description, standing at 5’4”.
At trial, Williams’ defense attorney cited an eyewitness expert in support of her argument that Williams had been misidentified. Identification experts were not allowed to testify in court at that point in time in Louisiana. An expert witness would have been able to explain to the jury the many factors that can influence a witness’s ability to accurately identify a suspect. For example, scientific research shows that identification procedures should be conducted as soon as possible after the incident because memory does not get better with time, and a suspect, by photo or in person, should not be repeatedly shown to a witness especially when a witness has twice told police he is not the assailant but only resembles the assailant. The expert would have also been able to inform the jury about data showing a heightened risk of misidentification in cross-racial situations.
Williams also had an alibi. His mother, sister and a family friend all testified that he was at home asleep at the time the attack occurred. Even more notable, numerous fingerprints were collected from the crime scene during the investigation, including from the bedroom and door leading to the room where the rape occurred. Several of these prints were found near prints in blood and blood smears on the door. At the time of trial, Williams was excluded from all identifiable prints.
The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, took on Williams’ case in 1995, and was eventually joined by Innocence Project New Orleans in representing Williams over the past 24 years.
“There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured.” — Potkin
The Innocence Project first sought DNA testing for Williams in 1996 when it became forensically available. It took over a decade for Williams to obtain the testing because he had to wait for the law to catch up with the science, and, specifically, for Louisiana to pass a law entitling convicted people to access DNA testing after trial to prove innocence. DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit was completed in 2009. The male DNA in the victim’s rape kit did not match Williams; it matched the victim’s husband and thus did not reveal the assailant’s identity.
A second forensic technique, a search of the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), could have helped Williams prove his innocence but, unlike DNA testing, there is still no statutory right to order its use. Two fingerprint examiners, Charles Illsley and Ron Smith, separately examined the fingerprints from the crime scene and found nine to be suitable for a search in the database. However, without a statutory right to search the fingerprint database, the state opposed Williams’ efforts for many years, arguing the claim was procedurally barred.
In 2009, unbeknownst to the defense, the state undertook a search of some of the latent prints from the crime scene at the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory, but this search did not result in any possible identifications. Williams continued to request database searches of the fingerprints. In 2014, Next Generation Identification (NGI) replaced IAFIS. NGI has demonstrated an ability to produce an identification of fingerprints even where a prior search in IAFIS failed, but was not used in the case until last week.
“If there is potential proof of an incarcerated person’s innocence, they must have access to it, no matter how old the case or how many times they have asked before.” — Maw
Last month, Commissioner Kimble ordered a status conference at which the court clarified it would invoke its power to obtain the truth in Williams’ case and make sure all possibilities had been explored. Because, in part, of the availability of the NGI fingerprint database and advanced technology, while maintaining their procedural objections, the state agreed to run the test. On March 14, 2019, fingerprint experts at Ron Smith & Associates, in conjunction with the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, submitted the suitable fingerprint lifts taken from the crime scene into NGI. This search led to an identification of a known individual, Stephen Forbes, a man who had committed similar sexual assaults in the same neighborhood as the victim in Williams’ case.
On June 19, 1986, Forbes was arrested while committing an attempted rape and burglary of a woman in her Baton Rouge home, less than two miles from the crime for which Williams was wrongly convicted three years prior. When arrested for the 1986 crime, Forbes gave taped confessions to four other rapes—two of which occurred in December 1985, one in April 1986 and one in May 1986. Forbes suffered mental illness and died in prison in 1996. He was never questioned about this crime.
The Innocence Project and Innocence Project New Orleans are grateful to Commissioner Kimble for recommending an AFIS search despite the absence of a clear statutory right and for vacating Williams’ conviction.
“If there is potential proof of an incarcerated person’s innocence, they must have access to it, no matter how old the case or how many times they have asked before,” said Emily Maw, senior counsel at the Innocence Project New Orleans. “If Commissioner Kimble had not insisted on, and First Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings had not agreed to, a fingerprint search, Williams would have died in prison. So, Williams’ case has two messages for Louisiana legislators: (1) give incarcerated people access to evidence that could prove their innocence and release them if it does; and (2) allow experts to explain to juries the ways an eyewitness’s memory can change so that innocently mistaken eyewitness identification doesn’t cause any more tragedies in this state.”
Both groups also hope that the unreliable identification techniques that led to Williams’ wrongful conviction in the first place will prompt swift and meaningful legislative reform. In 2018, the Louisiana legislature passed a bill that requires law enforcement to use scientifically supported best practices for eyewitness identification procedures. The law allows agencies to craft their own policies or adopt a “model policy” issued by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. The model policy details specific guidance about a range of eyewitness protocols, including the directive that multiple identification procedures featuring the same suspect should be avoided. Law enforcement agencies should therefore include this critical directive in their policies or simply adopt the model policy put forth by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association so that this practice can be avoided in future cases.
Innocence Project New Orleans is also working on a bill to allow eyewitness identification experts at trial, which all states but Louisiana and Nebraska permit. Had such an expert been present at Williams’ trial, it would have challenged the identification method used to select him as a suspect.
When asked how he felt about finally being released from prison for a crime he did not commit, Williams reflected, “There are many innocent people at Angola—guys who have served over 50 years. I’m happy to be cleared finally, but I’m not free until they are free.”
In court with him today were: Williams’ aunt Saundra Christmas, who sat through his original trial and has advocated for her nephew for the past 37 years, as well as his sisters Charlotte Alexander and Sheila Varner; his nieces LaShanda Martin and Tina Trice; and his cousins Ninon Soto and Jonathan Foster.
Williams is represented by Vanessa Potkin and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and Emily Maw of the Innocence Project New Orleans.