At the time of his arrest, he told the cops that even though he'd stabbed someone, he didn't kill anyone.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 16, 2022. It has since been updated.
On a Friday evening in 1953, Joseph "Joe" Ligon, a young boy of 15, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a string of robberies and assaults, in Philadelphia. Ligon, with five other teenagers, reportedly knifed eight men, out of which two died due to the assault. At the time, he admitted to having a hand in the crimes committed by stabbing someone but said that he hadn't killed anyone.
Ligon pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder during the trials but said that he was scapegoated as he was an out-of-towner, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. But fate was cruel to him, and he was sentenced to jail.
Ligon, now 83, is known as "America's longest Juvenile", as he's been in jail for 68 years. In 2021, He spoke with BBC about his time in prison, and his plans for the future, now that he's out in the real world.
America'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.— Magna Carta 自由憲章 (@RealHauleGluck) February 15, 2021
Joseph Ligon, 83, was 15 years old. https://t.co/TaRptz0YlA
Since Ligon spent most of his life away from the real world, he only had himself to count on. "I've never been alone, but I am a loner. I prefer to be alone as much as I possibly can. Being in prison, I've been in a single cell all this time, from the time of my arrest all the way up until my release," said Ligon. "That helps people like me, who want to be alone — I was the type of person."
"I had no friends inside. I had no friends outside," added Ligon. He grew up in the country, with his maternal grandparents in Birmingham, Alabama. Despite not having people to call his friends, he does remember having a good time around his family. "I didn't do too much hanging out. I was the type of person that had one or two friends, that was it for me — I didn't go for crowds," said Ligon.
When they moved to Philadelphia when he was 13, he found it hard to focus at school, prompting him to drop out. However, he learned to read and write during the time he spent in jail. Since he was known to keep to himself, it came as a surprise to many when he was one of the accused in the stabbing case. Apparently, he didn't know the people who were accused of the crime along with him. He'd only met up with a few people and walked around the neighborhood, bumping into people who were drinking.
He was one of the first to be arrested, but couldn't tell the cops the names of the people he was with, because he didn't know them, said Ligon. "I knew them by their nicknames."
He was denied legal help and his parents were not allowed to visit him. Even though it's been 68 years since that fateful night, he still maintains he didn't kill anybody. "They [the police] started giving us statements to sign, that implicated me in murder. I didn't murder anybody," said Ligon.
At the time, the then 15-year-old had no idea what his sentence was or what it meant for him. He simply thought that he'd spend just a few years in jail and then get out.
"I didn't even know what to ask. I know it's hard to believe but it was the truth," said Ligon. He was confused but not scared. He ended up living in six jails over 68 years. He worked mostly as a janitor during his time in jail. "I didn't mess with drugs, I didn't drink in jail, I did none of that crazy stuff that causes people to get killed, I didn't try to escape, I didn't give nobody a hard time," said Ligon. "What prison has taught me is mind your business."
The only thing that he missed during his time in jail was his family.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory life sentences imposed on juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and were deemed unconstitutional. This ruling made Ligon eligible for a new sentence in November 2016. He was contacted by Bradley S. Bridge, a lawyer. "He was not really aware of his sentence," said Bridge, from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "I realized that I was being mistreated from the time of my arrest," said Ligon.
He was initially offered 50 years to life in prison, which made him immediately eligible for parole, but Ligon declined the offer because he wanted to experience freedom in full. "I like to be free. 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,” said Ligon. Even though it's taken about seven decades, Ligon is finally free!
Cover Image Source: YouTube | CBS This Morning