America's oldest juvenile lifer jailed aged 15 is freed after 68 years

America’s oldest juvenile lifer, 83, who was jailed in 1953 aged 15 for his role in string of drunken, fatal armed robberies, is freed after 68 years

  • Joseph Ligon, 83, was freed from eastern Pennsylvania prison on Thursday 
  • In 1953, he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 15 
  • Ligon and other teens got drunk and went on assault spree in Philadelphia 
  • Two people were killed; Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder 
  • Ligon has denied killing the two and has refused to apply for parole during term
  • In 2012, Supreme Court ruled life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional
  • Five years later, Pennsylvania resentenced Ligon to 35 years in prison
  • In 2020, the state agreed to release him after appeals from Ligon’s attorney 

The nation’s longest-serving juvenile inmate who was sentenced to life in prison has been freed after spending 68 years behind bars during which he refused to apply for parole because he says he never killed anyone.

Joseph Ligon, 83, was 15 years old when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1953 for taking part in a string of robberies and assaults with a group of drunk teens in Philadelphia.

Two people died as a result of those crimes, though Ligon told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he didn’t kill anyone.

Joseph Ligon, 83, was released from a state prison in Pennsylvania on Thursday after spending more than 68 years behind bars

Ligon, 83, was 15 years old when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1953 for taking part in a string of robberies and assaults with a group of drunk teens in Philadelphia. Two people died during the crime spree, though Ligon denies that he killed them. The photo above shows Ligon in 1963

During his nearly seven decades behind bars, Ligon has refused to apply for parole, insisting that he be given an outright release

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences imposed on juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment and were thus unconstitutional.

After the ruling, Pennsylvania was among several states that refused to reduce the life sentences.

Four years later, the court ordered states to retroactively reduce the sentences of those who were given life terms for crimes committed with they were juveniles.

In the wake of the rulings, the state of Pennsylvania resentenced Ligon and more than 500 other ‘juvenile lifers’ to reduced prison terms that included lifetime parole.

In 2017, Ligon was resentenced to 35 years to life. Given the opportunity to apply for parole, however, he refused.

‘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.’

Bradley Bridge, a public defender who has represented Ligon as his attorney since 2006, went to federal court and asked for his client to be released.

‘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,’ he wrote.

In November, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office accepted Bridge’s motion and ordered Ligon either resentenced or released within 90 days.

Ligon was ordered released this past November after the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders was ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and thus unconstitutional’

Ligon was freed from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County on Thursday.

‘That was no sad day for me,’ Ligon said.

Ligon was born in Alabama to a poor family. After moving to Philadelphia, he was enrolled in elementary school but he dropped out by the fourth grade and was illiterate.

When he was 15 years old, he was considered an outsider among his peers. Ligon believes he was scapegoated and made to take the fall for the crimes.

In prison, Ligon kept to himself. Most of the time, he worked as a janitor. He also learned to read and write.

In his spare time, Ligon also trained as a boxer and kept in good physical condition by enduring grueling workouts.

In the 1970s, hundreds of lifers in Pennsylvania were released as part of a clemency plan, but Ligon never applied to have his sentence commuted.

‘I’m just a stubborn type of person,’ Ligon said.

‘I was born that way.’ 

Bridge said his client’s case is an illustration of the excesses of the criminal justice system.

‘We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating,’ he said. 

‘His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each.’

Bridge added: ‘Hopefully his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a re-evaluation of the way we incarcerate people.’ 

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