Oldest American ‘lifer’ released from Pennsylvania jail after 68 years behind bars – Action News Jax
PHILADELPHIA – When 15-year-old Joe Ligon last saw the light of day as a free man, Dwight Eisenhower had just completed his first month as president.
Ligon, now 83, left the Pennsylvania State Correctional Facility in Phoenix on Thursday after serving nearly 68 years in prison. Ligon, of Philadelphia, is the oldest “life sentence” in the United States.
As he watched the city from his attorney’s eighth-floor office that day, he spoke to a reporter.
“I look at all the tall buildings,” Ligon told the Philadelphia Inquirer writer. “It’s brand new to me. It never existed.
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Raised on a farm in Alabama, Ligon had little formal education, either before or after his family moved north to Philadelphia at the age of 13. the newspaper reported. Enrolled as a student in his new hometown, he couldn’t keep up with his classmates and remained illiterate two years later when he joined a group of teenagers on a night that would forever change their entire lives. .
Ligon was among five teenagers arrested on charges of first degree murder, assault and other related charges in a spate of February 20, 1953 knife attacks that killed two men and injured six others. Philadelphia Police Officers said at the time that the boys, all between the ages of 14 and 16, were affiliated with a newly formed gang known as the “Head Hunters”.
The teens, armed with snap-lock blades, bought two bottles of wine and, after getting drunk, began a two-hour ‘reign of terror’ that left Charles Pitts, 60, and Jackson Hamm, 65 years old, dead. the investigator reported a few days later.
Two of the boys went to trial but the other four, including Ligon, pleaded guilty in June. The week before Christmas he was sentenced to two mandatory terms of life in prison without parole.
Ligon, whose co-defendants named him as the person who stabbed the eight victims, admitted to taking part in the attacks that fateful night but said to the Inquirer he didn’t kill anyone.
Federal Court records indicate that the 1953 trial transcripts reflect Ligon’s consistent claim that although he stabbed a victim, the person he stabbed survived the assault.
The teenager went to prison, where he eventually learned to read and write, the newspaper reported. He learned to box and kept up to date with the news on a small television that he kept in his cell.
Read some of the initial story about the teenage arrests below.
Ligon expected to live his entire adult life behind bars, but in 2012 the United States Supreme Court ruled in a case outside his native Alabama that mandatory life imprisonment for minors was unconstitutional. Again, the Inquirer reportedPennsylvania courts at the time refused to apply the decision to inmates already in jail.
In 2016, a second court ruling forced the hand of the state, meaning Ligon and more than 500 other inmates sentenced as minors had to be re-sentenced. The following year, a judge sentenced him to 35 years of life.
Ligon, then 80, was immediately eligible for parole, according to court records.
He hesitated at the idea, however, and despite encouragement from his lawyer, fellow inmates, and the presiding judge, he declined to apply.
“I like to be free,” Ligon told the newspaper. “With parole, you have to see the parole people from time to time. You can’t leave town without parole. It’s part of freedom for me.
Instead, Ligon and Bradley Bridge, Ligon’s attorney since 2006, appealed his new conviction, which would have required him to remain on parole for the rest of his life if and when he was released. In 2017, he told the Inquirer that he did not want to be forced to stay in Pennsylvania.
“My little brother was murdered in South Philadelphia. My father was murdered in Pennsylvania ”, Ligon said three years ago. “My brother Jesse was married to a woman, and his brother was murdered in Pennsylvania and his father was murdered in Pennsylvania. There have been so many crimes in Pennsylvania within my family.
He said he hoped to move to New Jersey, where his sister and niece live. Upon his release Thursday, however, Ligon had been installed to stay with a family in Philadelphia who are welcoming newly released inmates, the Inquirer reported.
Bridge argued in the appeal that the maximum sentence contained in Ligon’s new sentence remains unconstitutional, despite the 35-year minimum. A sentence must be individualized for each accused, and it must be individualized in its entirety, “not treated as a means of indefinite parole, or worse, as a means of private retribution or the development of judicial policies”, he said. he wrote.
“It’s unconstitutional because the constitution requires that the entire sentence, both minimum and maximum sentences imposed on a minor, be individualized – and a one-size-fits-all solution cannot pass the constitutional test,” Bridge argued.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office supported Ligon’s writ of habeas corpus. On November 13, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody granted Ligon’s motion and referred the case to the lower court, ordering the inmate to be returned within 90 days or released from all detention, including parole. .
The 90-day deadline passed Thursday.
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Bridge said to the Inquirer that he has already heard from several other former inmates who, like Ligon, wish to challenge their life parole sentences.
“We are wasting people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we are wasting money by over-incarcerating. His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting everyone, ” Bridge told the newspaper on Thursday. “Hopefully his release, and the release of juveniles for life in general, will lead to a reassessment of how we incarcerate people.”
Ligon was hopeful.
“I like my chances” he said. “I really like my chances of survival.”
Cox Media Group