Karen Heller: After 57 years behind bars, a juvenile lifer speaks

Charles Pitts was killed at 17th and Wharton. Joe Ligon says he had nothing to do with the death or that of Jackson Hamm.
Charles Pitts was killed at 17th and Wharton. Joe Ligon says he had nothing to do with the death or that of Jackson Hamm.
Posted: September 22, 2010

That Friday night in February, Joe Ligon went drinking.

He tore through the neighborhood, South Philadelphia, with five other teenagers looking for money to buy wine. One boy carried two switchblades.

Something went wrong. By night's end, eight men had been knifed. There's no question Ligon was involved. He admits stabbing Clarence Belvey. Two men, Charles Pitts and Jackson Hamm, died before midnight.

Ligon was 15.

The lawyer instructed him to plead guilty to the murders at the one-day trial. Ligon was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

In 1953.

Since then, the other defendants have been released or died.

Not Ligon.

He's lived the last 57 years in prison, four decades in Graterford.

In all those years, Ligon never spoke to a reporter.

Until now. When he starts, he cannot stop, and talks himself hoarse. Five hours, without break, a torrent.

He wants to tell his story, especially since May, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Graham v. Florida, ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison for a non-homicide without possibility of parole is unconstitutional. The decision now makes it likely that the courts will eventually strike down life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles charged with homicide.

The United States leads the world in juveniles sentenced to life without parole, a practice condemned by international human-rights groups.

Pennsylvania, with 473 such prisoners, a quarter of all inmates similarly sentenced, leads the nation.

And, in that group, Joe Ligon leads in length of time served.

"No one else was sentenced the way I was sentenced," Ligon said, sitting in a tiny corner room in the visitors area. "We went to court together. Here I am, and they are out."

He's a formal man, voluble, passionate yet never exhibiting anger. Trim, fit, 5-foot-8, his hair is white as down, the hairline retreating north. "I only have but six teeth left in my head."

Ligon entered prison when Eisenhower was in his first year, 10 presidencies ago.

In the trial transcript, defendants are identified as "colored." There are references to a pool hall, a saloon. Ligon attended Thomas Durham, where he was enrolled in the "O.B." program - "orthogenically backward."

On Dec. 18, 1953, when his freedom ended, "I couldn't read or write my own name. I'm one of those slow learners." Today, he reads at a third-grade level, his letters typed by fellow inmates to his dictation.

"I am more, or less, of a loner. I like to do things by myself. I'm not alone in this prison, but I like to be alone when I can. If you don't join a group, you can't get in trouble," he said Monday. "They called us the 'headhunter gang' at the trial, but I was never in no gang."

The son of an auto mechanic and a nurse, the second of four children, he had never been arrested. "I was a mama's boy. She wailed the night they took me."

Ligon's father was murdered in 1977. His younger brother, Jessie, was murdered in the 1960s. His mother passed in 1980. He still has two sisters, and a couple of nieces who come to visit, the last time on July 3.

Ligon refers to his former prisons the way other people speak of their schools: Huntingdon (where he pursued boxing, his true love), Western State, Eastern State, and, finally, Graterford, the massive 1929 concrete fortress up a hill from a farm and the Perkiomen Creek watershed at the edge of Montgomery County. He works there as a janitor. "I love to clean. There's no limit to it."

What is it like to spend 57 years in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at age 15?

"I know what happened that night, how I was feeling, what I was thinking," he said, grasping his thin, immaculately groomed hands. "I don't have no chip on my shoulder. I'm not resentful. I don't show no bitterness. I'm bigger than that. I don't let things get the best of me. I don't take things too personally."

Still, he contends he had nothing to do with the stabbings of Charles Pitts, at 17th and Wharton, or Jackson Hamm, at Wharton and Capital. No witness put him at those crime scenes. He was arrested days before his codefendants, hours before the crime spree ended.

"I took the knife and hit him [Clarence Belvey] in the chest. That was at 16th and Federal. I did that. I did," Ligon said. "I regret that in the first place. I knew I had to do some time. Common sense told me that. I knew that when I stabbed that man."

Ligon, his voice a low scratch, said: "I've been able to deal with this situation because, in my mind and in my heart, I didn't kill somebody. If I had, that would have worried me to death. There's no way I could have done that and survived in here."

He says he's changed. Advocates for inmates like Ligon cite neuroscience demonstrating adolescents' inability to grasp the consequences of their actions. They also cite studies that show teenagers have a great capacity for change as they mature and become adults. They're more prone to being rehabilitated.

"For over 40 years, I've had no citations for misconduct," he said. "I haven't been in solitary confinement for over 50 years." He hasn't had a drink, he said, since Feb. 18, 1953.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Ligon filed a post-conviction petition based, in part, on making a coerced confession for his guilty plea. Then, for more than three decades, he had no legal representation. Without a lawyer, he would surely live out his days in Graterford.

Pennsylvania spends an average $32,000 annually on each of its 51,000 inmates, far more on older inmates with health issues like Ligon, ironically at the age when they're at the lowest risk of committing violent crime.

Conservatively, it's cost $2 million to lock up Ligon for 57 years. That's without the price tags for a hernia repair and 37 treatments for prostate cancer.

In October 2006, Bradley S. Bridge of Philadelphia's Defender Association took Ligon's case after speaking to a lifers group in Graterford. That was the year after Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on crimes committed as a juvenile.

Several cases in three separate courts are challenging incarcerating juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for homicide cases. Last year, State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson (D., Phila.) introduced legislation that would grant juvenile homicide lifers a chance at parole after age 31 if they've already served 15 years.

For Ligon, that moment would have occurred in 1969.

In three to four years, the practice of incarcerating juveniles in homicide cases without the possibility of parole "will be found unconstitutional," his lawyer Bridge said. "I firmly believe Joe Ligon will get out."

What it is like to have hope, after 57 years?

"The world ain't the same. I seen that on TV. I heard that on the radio. I hope I live long enough to see the world change," Ligon said. "One of my main concerns is that no one be ever again treated the way I was treated."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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