It should surprise absolutely no one that America’s oldest and longest-serving juvenile offender is a Black man.
Joe Ligon was 15 years old when he received a life sentence in Philadelphia for his involvement in a series of robberies and assaults that left two people dead—people he has always denied killing while admitting that he was involved in the other crimes with other teens. He was sentenced in 1953, but even in 2021, it’s easy to imagine a judge deciding a Black child should spend the rest of his life behind bars, whether he himself killed anyone or not. Last Thursday, Ligon, at 83 years old, walked out of Montgomery County’s State Correctional Institution Phoenix after being imprisoned for 68 years.
Ligon—who is originally from Alabama—pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, but said he felt he got “scapegoated as an out-of-towner,” The Hill reports. Thankfully, a 2012 Supreme Court decision put him on the path to freedom.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life terms for kids are cruel and unusual, he was one of more than 500 Pennsylvania prisoners all resentenced to terms contingent on lifetime parole.
But Ligon, resentenced to 35 years to life in 2017, rejected the very idea of parole after nearly seven decades in prison.
“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.”
Other prisoners tried to coax him out into the free world. John Pace, a former juvenile lifer and now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, recalled a fruitless visit to the prison with a group of other ex-lifers. “If you want to fight, fight it when you get out,” he counseled Ligon at the time.
But Ligon refused to apply for parole, let alone take any required programs.
So, according to the Inquirer, Bradley Bridge—an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia who represents Ligon—spent another three years fighting to get his client released with time served until he finally won in federal court by arguing that 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.”
Because the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed with Bridge’s argument, a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered on Nov. 13, 2020, that Ligon was either to be resentenced or released within 90 days. The clock ran out on that 90-day window Thursday and Ligon became a free man.
“I’m looking at all the tall buildings. This is all new to me. This never existed,” Ligon said upon his release, according to The Hill.