At 83 years old, Joe Ligon was released from prison earlier this month after serving time for a crime he committed when he was 15.
Ligon was sentenced in 1953 in connection with a string of robberies and stabbings in Philadelphia. The attacks left six people wounded and two people dead. According to a report from the Washington Post, the then-teenage Ligon had been drinking wine with a group of boys when they went on the spree. He said it was his first time ever drinking. Though Ligon admits that he took part in some of the robberies, he has always maintained that he never killed anyone.
That didn’t stop the court from finding him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and putting him away for life. The interceding years made him the oldest juvenile lifer in the U.S. prison system.
Ligon’s attorney Bradley Bridge said the man had more than repaid his debt to society, having been imprisoned since the Eisenhower administration.
“The child that committed those crimes back in 1953 no longer exists. The person that came out of prison in 2021 is 83 years old, has grown, changed, and is no longer a threat,” Bridge told CNN. “He has amply repaid society for the damage and harm that he did. And now, it’s appropriate that he spends the last years of his life in freedom.”
The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without parole, though recent Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the ability to hand down that sentence considerably. A 2012 decision ended the practice of mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders and a 2016 case made that standard apply retroactively. Ligon came up for parole because of that case, but he declined. The man who had spent most of his life in prison didn’t want to take an offer of conditional freedom.
“The state parole board presumably would have released him but on condition that he would be under their supervision for the rest of his life,” Bridge said. “He chose not to seek parole under those terms.”
Ligon never gave in to the idea of not seeing the outside world, however. He told the Post that he held onto hope for his nearly seven decades of imprisonment.
“I feel real good. One reason for that is because I’m out. I’m home,” Ligon said. “When you get life, you have no hope, especially if you give up. You don’t make plans like I made plans.”