After 68 years in prison, America's oldest juvenile lifer was released
It's a privilege earned over 68 years, as the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the country. He's been imprisoned since 1953, when he was just 15 years old.
“I guess you accumulate a lot of stuff in 68 years,” said Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia who's represented Ligon since 2006. Having taken on the mission of getting Ligon home — first legally, then logistically — he had to scramble to fit the materials into his car, commandeering a reporter's trunk for the overflow.
Ligon was incarcerated in February 1953 at the age of 15, given a mandatory life sentence after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a robbery and stabbing spree in Philadelphia with four other teenage boys. The crime left six people wounded and two people -- identified by the Philadelphia Inquirer as Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm -- dead.
"I got caught up, in terms of being in the streets," Ligon told after his release last week.
While a so-called degree of guilt hearing found Ligon guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, and Ligon admitted to stabbing at least one of the eight people stabbed that day, his attorney Bradley Bridge told that his client maintains he never killed anyone.
"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 said. "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."
"I'm a grownup now," Ligon said. "I'm not a kid anymore. Not only am I a grown man, I'm an old man and getting older every day."
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.
“That was no sad day for me,” Ligon said. He only wished his mother, his father, and his brother could have been there to see it.
The 90-day clock expired Thursday. So, for the first time, Ligon left behind prison walls and visited the public defenders’Center City office, where files on his case take up an entire room. He seemed unfazed as he placed his face close to a high-tech temperature scanner, then cruised by elevator up to the eighth floor.
Peering out the window, he saw a city transformed.
In his spare time, Ligon also trained as a boxer and kept in good physical condition by enduring grueling workouts.
‘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.’