It was a dream that couldn’t have seemed further from reality.
Williams, an African American man from a humble background in Baton Rouge, was serving a life sentence plus 80 years with no possibility of parole for crimes he did not commit: In 1983, a jury found him guilty of the rape and attempted murder of an affluent white woman in her own home.
But on May 26, 2020—37 years after his conviction and a little over a year since his exoneration and release—his improbable dream came true. America’s Got Talent viewers across the country watched Williams take the stage as a free man to perform a cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” He stood alone, his soulful voice filling the auditorium with powerful lyrics about losing everything.
But this wasn’t the only dream that Williams got closer to fulfilling this year.
In 2019, Williams was exonerated after a search of the FBI’s national fingerprint database linked crime scene fingerprints to another man. Vanessa Potkin, the director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, represented Williams along with founder Barry Scheck and Emily Maw of the Innocence Project New Orleans.
The Innocence Project accepted Williams’s case in 1995, and for nearly 25 years pushed for DNA and fingerprint testing, according to the press release it issued announcing the exoneration. The state finally agreed to the submission of crime scene fingerprints to the FBI database in March, 2019; the prints matched a convicted rapist who had committed similar rapes in the same neighborhood and who had died in prison in 1996 while serving time for rape, according to the press release.
Now, it is up to Dunn to show how that fingerprint evidence proved not only Williams’ innocence but also the culpability of those who worked in concert to send him to prison.