Joe Ligon, believed to be the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the United States, has been released from a Pennsylvania prison after spending nearly seven decades behind bars.
Ligon was incarcerated in February 1953 at the age of 15, given a mandatory life sentence after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a robbery and stabbing spree in Philadelphia with four other teenage boys. The crime left six people wounded and two people – identified by the Philadelphia Inquirer as Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm – dead.
“I got caught up, in terms of being in the streets,” Ligon told CNN after his release last week.
While a so-called degree of guilt hearing found Ligon guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, and Ligon admitted to stabbing at least one of the eight people stabbed that day, his attorney Bradley Bridge told CNN that his client maintains he never killed anyone.
“The child that committed those crimes back in 1953 no longer exists. The person that came out of prison in 2021 is 83 years old, has grown, changed, and is no longer a threat,” Bridge said. “He has amply repaid society for the damage and harm that he did. And now, it’s appropriate that he spends the last years of his life in freedom.”
“I’m a grownup now,” Ligon said. “I’m not a kid anymore. Not only am I a grown man, I’m an old man and getting older every day.”
Ligon’s road to release has been a long one.
In the 1970s, Ligon and his accomplices were granted the option of clemency from Pennsylvania’s governor. While two of the men chose to accept the offer, clemency meant being on parole, which Ligon rejected.
He turned down another offer of parole in 2017, after a ruling by the US Supreme Court made him eligible.
A year before, in 2016, the court had decided that Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 case in which mandatory juvenile life sentences without the prospect of parole were deemed unlawful, should be applied retroactively. The decision effectively resentenced Ligon to 35 years to life, and made him eligible for parole since he had been in prison for over 60 years.
But Ligon rejected the offer again, stating parole would not grant him the freedom he desired after decades in prison.
“The state parole board presumably would have released him but on condition that he would be under their supervision for the rest of his life,” Bridge said. “He chose not to seek parole under those terms.”
Bridge, who has represented Ligon for 15 years now, ultimately argued that a mandatory life sentence for a crime Ligon committed as a juvenile was unconstitutional. After a failed hearing at the Pennsylvania intermediate appellate court, Bridge managed to bring the case to the federal court and won the issue in November 2020, which ultimately granted Ligon freedom under his own terms in 2021.
Now that Ligon is out of prison, his work reentering society has begun.
John Pace, a former inmate and current reentry coordinator for the Philadelphia-based Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), said he’s been working with Ligon to help him land on his feet.
Pace was only 17 years old when he, himself, was incarcerated for mugging and assaulting a man. He spent the next 31 years imprisoned. After being released, Pace said he felt a sort of sickness after suddenly being exposed to his new reality.
Entering a new world
“You’re in a prison environment where there’s not a lot of stimulation. You’re not allowed to have contact with people. Your interactions are very limited. And so, there’s not a lot of stimulation,” said Pace. “So now you come out of prison, and just imagine all this, you can do what you want now. And what do you do with that?”
Bridge, Pace and several others have been working with Ligon to weather the shock of entering a new world.
This included finding Ligon housing via domiciliary care, where he has been living with a Philadelphia family that has played a role in assisting in the reentry process.
“There will always be people who think Joe should be in jail for the rest of his life,” Pace said. “Joe has control over how he demonstrates who he is today, and he hopes that’s enough to help other people realize how he’s trying to help other people use better judgment.”
Ligon said he wanted others to learn from his experience.
“I’m really looking forward to pleasing people and help people the way they’re helping me,” Ligon said, adding, “meeting some of the younger generation, with some of the older generation, and some of the reporters … to share some of my story.”
Asked what it was like to be back in the world a day and a half after his release, Ligon had this to say:
“Beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful.”