Joseph Ligon: Country's oldest juvenile lifer freed at age 83 after 68 years in prison, was jailed when he was 15
Joseph Ligon was freed from a Pennsylvania prison last Thursday, February 11, after spending more than 68 years in prison. The 83-year-old Ligon, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was just 15, was the country's oldest juvenile lifer.
Ligon was convicted for taking part in a spree of robbery and assaults with other teens, during which two people died. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that while he took part in the crime, he did not kill anyone. Ligon was with five other teenagers in an incident in which eight men were knifed and two of them died.
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In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences imposed on juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment and were therefore deemed unconstitutional. Following this decision, he became eligible for a new sentence in November 2016. He was offered 50 years to life in prison, which would have made him immediately eligible for parole, however, he declined it.
He told the Philadelphia Inquirer on this, "I like to be free. With parole, you got to see the parole people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.”
Ligon remained steadfast in his decision even when others tried to convince him to accept it. This included John Pace, a former juvenile lifer who is now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP). He told the publication that he told Ligon, "If you want to fight, fight it when you get out."
So, Ligon's lawyer, Bradley Bridge, an attorney with Defender Association, continued to fight for Ligon's freedom. Bridge argued that a "one size fits all" sentencing was not constitutional. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office agreed and on November 13, 2020, senior US District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Anita Brody, ordered Ligon to be resentenced or released within 90 days.
Who is Joseph Logon?
Ligon was born in Alabama to a poor family and grew up on a farm. After moving to Philadelphia when he was 13, he was enrolled in elementary school but dropped out and was illiterate. He learned to read and write in prison where he worked as a janitor most of the time. He also trained as a boxer in his spare time.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017, Ligon said that his younger brother was murdered in South Philadelphia and that his father was murdered in Pennsylvania. He said that his brother, Jesse, was married to a woman whose brother and father were murdered in Pennsylvania. He told the publication, "There has just been so much crime in Pennsylvania within my family."
While he said that the news of Brody's decision was welcome, he admitted that he wished his mother, father and brother could have been there to see it. After leaving prison, he went to the public defenders' Center City office, where he saw a transformed city. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I’m looking at all the tall buildings. This is all new to me. This never existed.”
He also found it unsettling that the Eastern State Penitentiary, where he was once imprisoned, is now a museum and a Halloween attraction, saying, "That don't suit my tastes."