What should be done with a man in his 80s or 90s who way back when they were a teenager committed a crime?
On Feb. 27th 83 year old Joe Ligon was released from Pennsylvania prison. He had been incarcerated since 1953, for a total of 68 years, for involvement in a robbery and murder committed when he was 15 years old.
It’s unclear whether way back in ’53 Ligon actually killed anyone, but he was given a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for playing a role in the stabbing. In its 2012 Miller vs Alabama decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. The sentencing judge must at least take the offender’s juvenile status and likely diminished culpability because they are a child into account. Ligon’s release was a long delayed result of that ruling.
Ligon is repentant, and clearly no threat to anyone now. “The child that committed those crimes back in 1953 no longer exists. The person that came out of prison in 2021 is 83 years old, has grown, changed, and is no longer a threat,” Ligon’s attorney said.
That seems right. Of course murders must be punished, and teenagers cannot have a free pass to commit crimes. But for an adult, especially an elderly one, to say they regret their actions as a teenager and would never repeat them now is certainly valid. We all know that young people are especially liable to give in to peer pressure, make rash decisions, not consider consequences, and generally make bad mistakes. To me, 68 years in prison seems like too much. Isn’t it a waste of a prison cell, which would be better used holding someone who is actually a current danger? And I think it’s obvious that holding an old man in jail is not going to make a whit of difference in deterring today’s teenagers from crime.
Friedrich Karl Berger Deported
Three days after Ligon’s release, a 95-year-old Tennessee resident was held to account for his actions way back in 1945. Friedrich Karl Berger was deported from the U.S. to Germany because he was found to have served as a concentration camp guard at the age of 19. An immigration judge found that Berger’s “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution.”
Berger claims he himself never carried a weapon and was just one of many guards stationed outside the camp for a short time when he was 19 years old. Everyone agrees he was of the lowest rank and had no say in what his country was doing. We don’t know his level of knowledge about what was happening in the camp he guarded, let alone his understanding of the moral context of the war.
The U.S. acting Attorney General, Monty Wilkinson, said in a statement Berger’s deportation “demonstrates the Department of Justice’s and its law enforcement partners’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for those who have participated in Nazi crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses.” That’s certainly a lofty goal. But Berger didn’t exactly just flee Europe yesterday one step ahead of the law. Instead, he’s been living peacefully in the United States for nearly three quarters of a century.
If Berger had been an adult during the holocaust, had a role in running a concentration camp, or had been a designer of the Nazi’s plans I wouldn’t question deporting him now. But what if he tells us that he had no idea what he was doing back when he was 19, he didn’t know the truth about the camp he was guarding, and today he certainly condemns the Nazi’s crimes? Does that make a difference? Can we compare Berger’s case to Joe Ligon’s?
judge each person as an individual
There are of course many differences. But a principle of the human rights movement which should guide us is that everyone must be judged as an individual. I think the Supreme Court got this exactly right in Miller vs Alabama.
The court did not say that life without parole for juveniles is necessarily always unconstitutional. The court just said that it can’t be mandatory. The sentencing judge needs to look at all the facts and circumstances of each case- what the juvenile did, their level of knowledge and maturity, and then come to a decision.
That’s what we should do when reflecting on these two cases. We need to ask what Ligon and Berger actually did, what their level of knowledge and maturity was at the time, and how they present themselves today. Justice can vary tremendously based on those factors. But justice shouldn’t depend on the circumstance. Whether it be a teen growing up in Nazi Germany or the United States, we have to apply the same yardsticks of maturity, remorse, and compassion when making up our minds.