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.
And all I can say, it’s about time.
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 dead.
Ligon admitted to stabbing at least one of the eight people stabbed that day, but has maintained 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,” his lawyer Bradley 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.”
There has been a good deal of research that the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, and as a result the juvenile shouldn’t be treated as an adult when it comes to sentencing. If you are interested, here is some background reading.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme 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.
However, Ligon wanted total freedom, he did not want to be subject to parole.
That was consistent with a decision he made back in the 1970s, when 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, Ligon rejected the offer. Ligon did not want to be subject to supervision the rest of his life.
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.
He is now a free man, and trying to adapt to such a life. Such a transition can be overwhelming, but fortunately there are people who help with such transitions. And Ligon eventually hopes to be one of those who helps others facing such transitions.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to spend 68 years in jail. The mental resolve necessary to survive so long has to extraordinarily difficult. As such, I think Ligon will eventually adapt and thrive in his new life as a free man.
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.”