Watch CBS News

After 68 years in prison, "juvenile lifer" Joe Ligon is free and hopes for a "better future"

Nation's oldest juvenile lifer speaks out
After serving 68 years in Pennsylvania prison, Joe Ligon returns to modern world he barely knows 05:23

The United States has long led the world in the number of children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pennsylvania has put more juveniles behind bars for life than anywhere else in the country.

Of those people, Joe Ligon has the tragic distinction of being the oldest and longest-serving "juvenile lifer" in the country. The 83-year-old was released from prison in February after serving nearly seven decades for crimes he committed when he was 15.

"What was the first thing you did as a free man?" CBS News' Michelle Miller asked Ligon in his first U.S. television interview.

"I almost cried," he said. "Ok. But I broke down with a big smile on my face. A free man. Free at last."

Ligon, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, was incarcerated when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and Nat King Cole's "Pretend" was on the music charts. He returns to a changed world, pointing out buses and buildings he had never seen before.

"I went to the window and I looked out and when I seen all these high buildings. But I expect to see that," Ligon said. "They locked me up. They did. But they didn't lock my mind up."

In 1953, Ligon and four other Black teenagers were involved in an alcohol-fueled spree of robberies and stabbings in Philadelphia in which two people died.  

"I was guilty of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't with the intention of hurting nobody. I didn't murder anybody," he said.

"There are people out there who are gonna watch and they're gonna say, 'He stabbed someone. He committed a crime.' You say to them what?" Miller asked.

"I'm sorry that I committed a crime. I'm sorry that someone was murdered, I'm sorry about that," Ligon responded.

He concedes he did stab someone that night but maintains he didn't kill anyone and said he's a changed man.

"Did you feel remorse for what you did?" Miller asked Ligon. 

"Yes, I did. Yes, I did. I had to feel remorse," he said.

The teenagers were tried together. They pleaded guilty and were convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of ever getting out.

Bradley Bridge, an assistant defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, has represented Ligon for more than 15 years. He told Miller that he sensed injustice and was compelled to do something about it.

"Joe was convicted largely by guilt by association. There were four kids that were tried together. And a lot of the evidence against one child was considered against the other two or three other children," Bridge said. "If this case went forward to trial today, he'd probably be found guilty of a manslaughter charge...and maybe third-degree murder and might do five to ten...or ten to twenty."

His fate started to change after a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions found that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that all juvenile lifers should have a chance to be re-sentenced. But, after nearly seven decades behind bars, Ligon refused to be released on parole because he didn't want to be supervised for the rest of his life.

So they kept fighting until a federal judge recently vacated his sentence. He was released without parole. Bridge said Ligon's case is a representation of many issues in the criminal justice system.

"First of all, it symbolizes that we really should sentence people individually based on who they are and what it was that they did. So a mandatory sentence doesn't do that," he said. "And the second thing is that children are particularly unique in their ability to grow, change and reform themselves and therefore, giving an adult sentence to a child is inherently wrong."

Throughout everything, Ligon has had a supportive family, including his niece Valerie. Most of his immediate family has since died and the world may have changed, but Ligon said he's not dwelling on the past.

"Ain't nothing I can do about the past. But the only thing I can say, I just hope I have a better future," he said.

According to an estimate by the Vera Institute of Justice, it cost the state of Pennsylvania nearly three million dollars to incarcerate Ligon for 68 years, and that's without medical costs.

Ligon said he's planning his future and is considering using the custodial skills he learned in prison to get a job cleaning the offices of the lawyers who helped him get out.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.