After serving 68 years in prison for a spree of robberies as a juvenile offender, Joe Ligon, known as the nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, was released this week from State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, according to The Philadephia Inquirer.
Ligon was sentenced to life in prison at age 15 in 1953 for his role in a spree of robberies that left two people dead, however, while he admitted to participating in the robberies, the now-82-year-old man has remained firm that he did not kill anyone.
The world was a much different place in 1953. When Ligon was sentenced, Dwight D. Eisenhower was serving his first term as president. Supporters of Ligon’s release tweeted in celebration, noting all of the things he’s missed or has yet to see since serving his near-seven decade sentence.
Joe Ligon is free after 68 yrs in prison. Since 1953.
What he’s missed: Elvis. Rosa Parks. Brown v Board. McDonald’s. Interstate highways. Rock & roll. The moon landing. Alaska & Hawaii becoming states. Tie dye, bellbottoms, acid wash.
& his whole life. https://t.co/DHXK7Oo0n1
— Laura Nirider (@LauraNirider) February 12, 2021
According to Matt Mangino, a criminal defense attorney who has extensively followed the case, Ligon has always contended that he had nothing to do with the fatal stabbings that left Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm dead. No witnesses even put him on the scene of the crime, however, he was arrested several days before his would-be co-defendants in the case. All of whom have since died or were released well before him.
“I’ve been able to deal with this situation because, in my mind and in my heart, I didn’t kill somebody,” Ligon told Philadephia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller in 2010. “If I had, that would have worried me to death. There’s no way I could have done that and survived in here.”
According to Heller, Ligon’s lawyer advised him to plead guilty to the murders during a one-day trial for which he received a life sentence without parole. Parole eventually did become a possibility, per a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that automatic life sentences for juveniles were cruel and usual. Hundreds of juvenile offenders were resentenced following the ruling.
“I like to be free,” he said. “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.”
On February 11, 2021, Ligon got his freedom with no strings attached. The octagenarian walked out of SCI Pheonix with 12 file boxes of belongings.
“I guess you accumulate a lot of stuff in 68 years,” Ligon’s lawyer Bradley Bridge said.
Bridge, an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, has represented Ligon since 2006, finally winning victory in federal court last year when he argued that Ligon’s sentence was unconstitutional.
“The constitution requires that the entire sentence, both the minimum and maximum terms imposed on a juvenile, be individualized — and a one size fits all cannot pass constitutional muster,” Bridge wrote, to which the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed.
Ninety days later, Ligon was freed.
Bridge told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hopes Ligon’s case will allow for the reevaluation of how sentences are determined.
“We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating,” Bridge said. His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each,” Bridge said. “Hopefully his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a reevaluation of the way we incarcerate people.”
According to the New York Post, the first thing Ligon did upon leaving the facility was to take in the ways the city of Philadelphia has changed.
“I’m looking at all the tall buildings,” he said. “This is all new to me. This never existed.”