America’s oldest Juvie Lifer

The story of Joseph Ligon

When Ligon committed his crime, Eisenhower was president in his first term, and the Korean War was raging. It was 1953: Three years before Elvis hit “The Ed Sullivan Show,” eleven years before the Beatles came to America. More than six decades ago, on a Friday night in a poor section of Philadelphia, there were six teenagers and two switch blades. By the end of the night, eight men were knifed—two died. Ligon was convicted of two counts of first degree murder.

Pennsylvania is one of six states where all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole. Here (and in Louisiana) first and second-degree murder convictions carry mandatory life sentences—-even for juveniles. Ligon was sentenced by a three-judge panel, all white, a one-day trial. He became a “JLWOP”—Juvenile Life Without Parole. At the time of the arrest he was 15. Re-read this sentence and let it sink in. Ligon, a 15-year-old, was sent to die in prison.