Joseph Ligon, America’s oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer who was sentenced to life in prison, has been freed after being behind bars for 68 years and refusing to apply for parole. On February 20, 1953, Ligon, then 15 years, attended a dance and drank wine with four other teens. They then ended up robbing and stabbing eight people in Philadelphia. Two of the victims, Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm, died.
Ligon was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1953, at 16 years old, alongside three other boys in connection with the stabbing deaths of the two men and the injury of the eight others. Ligon, despite his conviction, maintains that he did not kill anyone as he stabbed only one person, who survived.
At 83, Ligon became America’s longest-serving juvenile inmate, having served 68 years in prison. His co-defendants had either died or received commutations but when he got the chance to be released, the white-haired man turned it down. In November 2016, he became eligible for a new sentence following a Supreme Court decision banning life without parole for juveniles. However, when the offer of 50 years to life in prison that would make him immediately eligible for parole was put to him, he declined on principle.
“His view is: He’s been in long enough,” Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association who represents Ligon, told the court at the time. “He doesn’t want to be on probation or parole. He just wants to be released.”
Ligon, of course, would like to go free, but he apparently didn’t want the kind of freedom that would require him to remain under the control of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. That same Pennsylvania, he claims, has not done anything good for his family after it locked him up.
Bridge began fighting for his outright release. In November, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office accepted Bridge’s motion, ordering that Ligon is either resentenced or released within 90 days. Last Thursday, that deadline expired and he was finally released from his cell. “I’m looking at all the tall buildings. This is all new to me. This never existed,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer after being freed from the State Correctional Institution – Phoenix in Montgomery County. When asked why he refused an earlier chance at parole he said: “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, who learned to read and write while in Graterford prison, grew up on a farm in Alabama. He never attended school until he was 13 when his family moved to Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that he joined the gang who got involved in the drunken stabbing spree. Identified by his accomplices as the killer, Ligon said he was told to plead guilty and he didn’t know that would mean life in prison. He was also not present at his own sentencing.