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Juvenile lifer, 79, rejects deal for parole. 'His view is: He's been in long enough'

Joseph Ligon has served 63 years in prison for two murders committed when he was 15 years old, making him the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the world.

Joseph Ligon has served 63 years in prison for two murders committed when he was 15 years old, making him the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the world.

Like 300 others from Philadelphia, he's eligible for a new sentence following a January Supreme Court decision banning life without parole for juveniles. But, when he received the District Attorney's offer - a deal for 50 years to life in prison that would make him immediately eligible for parole - the white-haired, 79-year-old declined on principle.

"His view is: He's been in long enough," Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, told the court Friday. "He doesn't want to be on probation or parole. He just wants to be released."

Ligon was one of five youths charged in the stabbing deaths of Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm in Point Breeze.

He was also among seven defendants named in a petition Friday asking a three-judge panel to answer legal questions that could shake up the process of resentencing juvenile lifers in Philadelphia, which is home to more such inmates than anyplace else in the country.

The defense team, including the Defender Association, the Juvenile Law Center, and private defense lawyers, proposed 15 questions, including: whether a maximum of life is unconstitutional in a juvenile case; whether it's illegal to base resentencing on a current state law that explicitly does not apply to cases older than 2012; and whether, because the juvenile lifers' first- and second-degree murder sentences were found unconstitutional, they must be resentenced as third-degree cases.

District Attorney Seth Williams has said all offers would be guided by the 2012 law, which sets minimums of 35 years to life in first-degree cases and 30 to life in second-degree cases. So far, his office has extended approximately 65 offers.

The approach leaves the ultimate decision of whether to release lifers up to the parole board.

That's drawn withering criticism from U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Savage, who in August called it "an abdication of judicial responsibility."

Last week, the Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Gaetan Alfano also decried the policy "as not reflecting individualized sentencing required by the Constitution."

"We in the Philadelphia legal community believe that we must do better," Alfano said in the statement.

Williams' office responded that, in fact, "Each offer has been based on a careful, individualized assessment of the crime and the defendant."

Individualized sentences are a cornerstone of the Supreme Court decision. Beyond that, many legal questions around the resentencing of juvenile lifers remain murky.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may soon decide some of them. In December, it will hear arguments in Commonwealth v. Batts, on questions including whether juveniles must be found incorrigible "beyond a reasonable doubt" before life sentences can be imposed.

In the interim, judges across the state have been interpreting the law in wildly different ways. One, in Tioga County, ordered an inmate who'd served 46 years released immediately. Another, in Chester County, sentenced several inmates to time-served-to-life without conducting a hearing. And a third, in Allegheny County, has determined that he is bound to apply the 2012 sentencing statute in all cases.

So far no contested hearings have yet been held in Philadelphia. Of the 65 offers made, seven long-serving juvenile lifers have been resentenced under new deals making them eligible for immediate parole, and 26 more are scheduled for resentencing. Three others have formally rejected offers.

One lifer, Nathaniel Anderson, 59, agreed to a new sentence of 35 years to life in prison Oct. 25.

A husband, stepfather, and devout Muslim - court proceedings were delayed a half hour while he negotiated permission to wear his kufi in the courtroom - he earned a bachelor's degree from Villanova University while incarcerated.

Anderson's lawyers described a man who had little in common with the 16-year-old who'd been part of a 20th-and-Carpenter-Street gang, engaged in a battle with the Black Mafia. After Black Mafia members, including the victim, Roger Pinkard, shot at Anderson and his friends and firebombed one of their mother's cars, the teens went looking for revenge. Anderson was there when a friend shot and killed Pinkard.

According to his lawyers, Anderson rejected a deal for four to 15 years. He has now been in prison 43 years.

Fifty-seven friends and relatives packed the courtroom to overflowing, including a 63-year-old man who grew up with Anderson and said he knew six juvenile lifers from his neighborhood alone.

Nydeerah Hatton, one of Anderson's stepdaughters, said he's been an inspiration to his extended family. After having three children, she left school. But after Anderson completed his baccalaureate, she decided to do the same.

"He's inspired me a lot, being confined and still being able to achieve goals. Seeing him do it, he's my motivation," she said.

He could be paroled within months. Hatton said she expects his transition will be seamless.

"I don't think it would take anything for him to fit in," she said. "He's already in."