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THOMPSON: Archie Williams is free thanks to the Innocence Project

April 01, 2019 - 12:06 PM

 


OPINION


On April 21, 1983, a jury in Baton Rouge, Louisiana sentenced Archie Williams to life in prison without parole. The jury found him guilty of attempted murder, aggravated rape and aggravated burglary. They got it wrong…all wrong. Williams didn’t commit any of the crimes.

Unfortunately, it took a month shy of 36 years for the state to admit its and the jury’s mistakes. Williams spent all of that time - 13,109 days - in the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola…a former sugarcane plantation once tended by hundreds of slaves. Angola - variously called “Alcatraz of the South” or “Angola Plantation” or simply “the Farm” - has a long history of brutality and corruption. Just two weeks ago, seven employees - six correctional officers and a nurse - resigned over inappropriate sexual behaviour with inmates…four have been charged and arrested.

Today, Angola is America’s largest prison in area and population…28 square miles of land surrounded on three sides by the winding Mississippi River and swampland. The closest town - St. Francisville - is 22 miles away down Highways 66 and 61…home to just 1,700 people. There are nearly 7,000 inmates and about 1,800 prison staff…all of whom live on the sprawling prison grounds.

This story about Archie Williams starts without him being present. Just after noon on Dec. 9, 1982, a 31-year-old woman answered a knock at the side door of her house in Hundred Oaks, a fashionable Baton Rouge neighbourhood five miles east of the Mississippi just north of Interstate 10. A black man carrying a briefcase was at the door…he claimed he was collecting clothes for the needy. Later, she said, she recognized him from a month before… when he asked for directions in front of her house.

She was suspicious but before she could close and lock the door, the man pushed through. He threw her to the floor, pinned her down and pulled a knife from the briefcase and held it to her neck. He took the woman upstairs to a bedroom, raped her twice and before a third attempt a friend drove up with her daughter to play with the victim’s daughter. The friend honked the horn a few times…and then entered the house.

The rapist covered his victim’s mouth but as her friend came upstairs, he stabbed the victim in the abdomen. The friend coming up stairs was startled when she opened the door…and begged the man to take her car and leave. He slammed her against a wall, then stabbed the rape victim once more…in the chest. The two children…one who lived in the house and her playmate hid in another bedroom. The only thing that might have saved all of them was a mail carrier knocking on the door with a piece of certified mail. The attacker escaped out the side door.

The victim underwent surgery and a rape kit was taken. The friend described the rapist to police for a composite drawing. She - at five feet, four inches tall and wearing three-inch heels - was a few inches shorter than the rapist.

Six days later, the victim - still in hospital - said the rapist was five feet, nine inches to five feet, 11 inches tall. A composite drawing based on her description was done, as well, though it differed from the friend’s description and drawing dramatically. Also, the victim said she noticed the rapist had a scar about five inches long near his left clavicle.

Police showed the victim 48 photos of black men - six lineups with eight photos each. The next day she saw 24 black men in three more lineups. She did not identify her attacker among the 72 photos.

The victim was released from hospital in late December and on Jan. 3 was shown 36 black men in six additional photo lineups. She said one man resembled her attacker, and asked to see side views.

Looking at side views, the victim pointed to a photo of 22-year-old Archie Williams and told police to “look for someone who looked like him.” Her friend did not positively identify the attacker in those lineups. Williams’ photo was the only one to appear in multiple lineups.

Police arrested Williams that night. The following day, Jan. 5, 1983, Williams was placed in a live lineup, and the victim positively identified him - the fourth time she had viewed Williams in a photo or live lineup. Years later, Federal courts ruled such practice as suggestive and disallowed them.

While not squeaky clean - Williams had two misdemeanour burglaries and two rape charges that were dropped - he was already on the prosecutor’s radar.

Three months later, Williams stood trial…and in three days 11 of the 12 jurors voted guilty. Louisiana only required 10 of 12 jurors to vote guilty for conviction…a holdover from Jim Crow days when no black people were on juries. Black people could be jurors…but the state found a way to not always count their votes. The 10-2 rule changed in a general election last November.

The case against Williams was weak…at best. The victim identified Williams in court…but the scar she said was on his clavicle was now smaller on on his arm. The serologist from the Police Crime Lab couldn’t say absolutely that the seminal fluid from the rape kit was from Williams. The fingerprints found at the crime scene didn’t match Williams’ prints

The friend who could not identify Williams actually told the jury this, according to court records: “When I went into the lineup, there were six men, all about the same height, all about the same body build, all with approximately the same hairdo, all approximately the same age. So I was left with the impression of…eenie, meenie, miney, moe—just picking one.”

So, on the strength of the victim’s - not the friend’s - positive identification, and the rhetoric of a overzealous deputy prosecutor, Archie Williams went to prison for 36 years. That’s not a crime, it’s a shame.

Of course, the real crime was that someone did rape - twice - and attempt murder on one woman and assault another woman. Stephen Forbes - another black man - was arrested in 1986 in Baton Rouge…caught during a rape. He confessed to four other rapes before dying in prison in 1996. And last month, recent improvements in fingerprint technology matched the fingerprints of Stephen Forbes to those left in the woman’s house in Hundred Oaks more than 36 years ago.

As for Archie Williams…on March 21 he walked out of district court in Baton Rouge a free man. Somehow, he wasn’t bitter. He wants to spend time with friends and family, he said, and then, “I want to go to college.”

Archie Williams is free - exonerated of all crimes - due to the work of those involved in the Innocence Project. Unlike Williams, most are exonerated by DNA evidence…364 in the U.S. alone…and 160 real perpetrators have been brought to justice since 1994.

The Innocence Project has affiliations worldwide. In Canada, the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver handles B.C. cases. Other provinces are handled by Innocence Canada in Toronto. Some 30 people have been exonerated…80 more cases are in progress. To find out more, the respective websites are allard.ubc.ca and innocencecanada.com.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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