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Philly's oldest juvenile lifer resentenced, but is it too late?

“I was arrested in Philadelphia at the age of 15. I was in jail quite a few years,” said Joe Ligon, who recently turned 80 in prison. He’s eligible for parole — but will he apply after decades in an institution?

On Dec. 19, 1953, the Inquirer reported that the Federal Communications Commission had just approved color television. British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Dwight D. Eisenhower were discussing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. And four teenage boys were sentenced to life in prison.

That was 64 years and 11 presidents ago. On Wednesday, Joseph Ligon — the last of those teens still in prison, and the oldest person serving a life-without-parole sentence imposed when he was a juvenile — received a new sentence, 35 years to life in prison, that made him immediately eligible for parole.

In October, Ligon rejected a deal effectively imposing the same outcome; last week in a status hearing, he told Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott he would rather wait in jail for his appeal to play out than be paroled in Pennsylvania. But McDermott said the resentencing would proceed. If Ligon chose, she noted, he could remain in prison indefinitely rather than applying for parole.

But, she said, "I don't want you to die in prison."

She added, "My position, sir, is you have served enough time." .

Ligon is one of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia, the largest such population in the country, who are back in court after the U.S. Supreme Court found automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional. His was the first contested resentencing hearing, but Philadelphia judges have already laid out the path ahead. McDermott said they determined that a lifetime on parole is required in all of the cases.

Ligon, who recently turned 80, indicated Wednesday he would not seek parole. He expressed trepidation about returning to a state that locked him up when he was 15 and that he said has done little good for his family since. His sister and niece are in New Jersey, and that's where he'd prefer to go.

"My baby brother was murdered in South Philadelphia. My father was murdered in Pennsylvania," Ligon said. "My brother Jesse was married to a woman, and her brother was murdered in Pennsylvania and her father was murdered in Pennsylvania. There has just been so much crime in Pennsylvania within my family."

McDermott, however, said sending Ligon out of state on parole was beyond her power.

Ligon's lawyer, Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said he would appeal the decision.

Ligon was sentenced to life in prison in December 1953 alongside the three other boys, members of a group the newspapers called the Head Hunters Gang, for their roles in a drunken stabbing spree that left eight people injured. Charles Pitts, 51, and Jackson Hamm, 65, died. A fifth teen was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey described Ligon as the killer responsible for both deaths. Ligon denied he killed either man, but acknowledged that he was part of the switchblade gang and that he stabbed another person, who survived.

Bridge said Ligon grew up on a farm in Alabama, never attending school, and moved to the city at age 13. He struggled once finally placed in school in Philadelphia — he was and remains illiterate — and was looking for acceptance when he fell in with the group. They all pointed to Ligon as the culprit.

In court Wednesday, Ligon said that he was not present when the judges imposed his sentence and that he did not understand that his was a life sentence until he first met with Bridge in 2006.

At the time of their sentencings, it was common for lifers to serve as little as 15 or 20 years before being granted commutation. Though corrections officials advised Ligon to apply for clemency, he never did so. According to the Inquirer archives, one of Ligon's codefendants, James C. Tolbert Jr., was recommended for commutation 45 years ago, in 1972. Another, Robert McAfee, received commutation in 1987, according to Department of Corrections records.

McDermott said she saw no reason for Ligon not to do the same. (Bridge said the third codefendant died in prison.)

"As I understand, you have had no write-ups in 40 years," she added. (There was the time he had the sports pages in his cell and was written up for gambling, his lawyer noted.)

Bridge described a reentry plan for Ligon that would likely include one-on-one support and possibly a janitorial job at the Defender Association offices. It appeared unlikely to be put into effect.

Five former juvenile lifers, all released over the last year, were in the courtroom to show their support for Ligon.

John Pace, who was resentenced to 30 years to life and now works for the Inside Out program at Temple University, said he was saddened by the situation. "Illiteracy has a lot to do with it," he said. "Instead of seeing the value of his freedom, he wants to stay in."

Michael Twiggs, who served 41 years of a juvenile life sentence before his own resentencing and release this year, said he understands where Ligon is coming from.

"I initially didn't want to be paroled either," he said. "I hope he would come out on parole and let his appeals proceed out here. But I don't think he trusts the system. I think he feels he served enough time, and I agree with him."