The story of Joe Arridy would haunt the US justice department for decades and possibly even centuries.
The American justice system is intended to protect innocent people and punish those who commit crimes, but the story of Joe Arridy highlights how things can go wrong. Convicted and executed for a crime he didn’t commit, Joe was a vulnerable young man who was taken advantage of by those in power.
His tragic story warns of the dangers of false confessions and the importance of ensuring justice is served fairly and impartially. In this article, we explore Joe Arridy’s case and shed light on the injustices that were done to him.
What Happened to Joseph “Joe” Arridy?
Joe Arridy was erroneously convicted and put to death for the 1936 rape and murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain in Pueblo, Colorado. Due to his mental instability, the authorities persuaded him to give a false confession. When Arridy was put to death on January 6, 1939, he was 23 years old and mentally ill.
Arridy’s innocence was widely held both at the time and after that. The first grave marker for Joseph Arridy was ordered in 2007 by Friends of Joe Arridy. They also helped David A. Martinez, a Colorado attorney, in his efforts to prepare a petition for a state pardon to clear Arridy’s record.
2011 saw Colorado Governor Bill Ritter grant a complete and unconditional posthumous pardon to Arridy (72 years after his death). Given doubts about Arridy’s culpability and what looked to be a forced false confession, Ritter, the former district attorney of Colorado, granted him a pardon.
The governor had never before granted a pardon to a criminal following their execution in Colorado.
The Tragic Life of Joe Arridy
Mary and Henry Arridy, recent immigrants from Syria (then a part of the Ottoman Empire), who were looking for a job and did not understand English, had Arridy in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1915. Henry accepted a position with a significant Pueblo steel company. For the first five years of his life, Arridy was mute.
His principal advised his parents to keep him home after spending one year in elementary school, claiming he could not learn. A few years later, when he lost his work, his father turned to his friends for assistance in finding housing for his son.
At age 10, Arridy was accepted into the State Home and Training School for Mental Defects in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he intermittently resided until he was a teenager. He was frequently bullied and physically assaulted by his peers at school and in his neighborhood.
When he was 21, he was at the railyards of Cheyenne, Wyoming, by the end of August 1936, having left the school and boarded freight trains to flee the city.
Events Leading to the Arrest of Joe Arridy
Two girls from the Drain family in Pueblo, Colorado, were attacked on August 14, 1936, as they slept there. Barbara Drain, 12, and Dorothy, 15, were both beaten by an invader who was thought to be wielding a hatchet. In addition to being raped, Dorothy was attacked with a hatchet, but Barbara survived.
Arrest and Unfair Trial of Joe Arridy
In Cheyenne, Wyoming, on August 26, 1936, Arridy was detained for vagrancy after being discovered wandering the railyards. George Carroll, the county sheriff, was aware of the extensive hunt for potential murderers in the Drain case.
Carroll started asking Arridy about the Drain case when he admitted during interrogation that he had left Grand Junction, Colorado, through Pueblo and a train. Carroll claimed that Arridy told him a confession.
Carroll heard that the Pueblo police had already detained Frank Aguilar, a Mexican laborer thought to be the main suspect, when he spoke with Pueblo police chief Arthur Grady about Arridy. Before the attack, Aguilar, who had previously worked for the father of the Drain girls, was fired.
At Aguilar’s house, an axe head was found. Arridy allegedly informed Sheriff Carroll multiple times that he had “been with a man named Frank” at the crime scene. Afterward, Aguilar admitted to the crime while telling authorities he had never seen or interacted with Arridy.
Aguilar was also found guilty of raping and killing Dorothy Drain and given the death penalty. In 1937, he was executed. This should have automatically freed Arridy, but because of the egotistical and sadistic mannerisms of the investigating officers, he was framed.
Arridy reportedly confessed once again after he arrived in Pueblo.
When the matter ultimately went to trial, Arridy’s solicitor pleaded for his client’s insanity to prevent a death sentence. Despite being recognized by three state psychiatrists as having a severe mental impairment that he should have been labeled as an “imbecile”—a designation used in medicine at the time—Arridy was found to be sane.
They claimed he had a 46 IQ and the mental capacity of a six-year-old. They stated he “would not be able to undertake any action with a criminal purpose” since he could not discern between good and wrong.
He was found guilty mainly due to Arridy’s fabricated confession. Since then, research has demonstrated that people with impaired mental capacity are more susceptible to coercion during questioning and are more likely to give false confessions.
He was not the subject of any tangible proof. According to Barbara Drain’s testimony, Aguilar, but not Arridy, had been at the attack. Aguilar was recognized since he had previously worked for her father.
After Arridy’s conviction and punishment, Appellate Attorney Gail L. Ireland—subsequently elected and served as Colorado Attorney General and Colorado Water Commissioner—became involved as defense counsel.
Ireland succeeded in delaying Arridy’s execution, but he could not get his conviction overturned or have his sentence commuted. He pointed out both Aguilar’s claim that he acted alone and the testimony of medical professionals on Arridy’s mental impairments.
Ireland claimed that Arridy was incapable of comprehending the meaning of execution. Ireland told the Colorado Supreme Court, “Trust me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the humiliation. While applications and appeals in Arridy’s favor piled up, nine stays of execution were granted.
Execution of Joe Arridy
Arridy frequently played with a miniature train that prison warden Roy Best gave him while he was on death row throughout the appeals process. Arridy was “the happiest prisoner on death row,” according to the warden.
He was well respected and treated by both the guards and the inmates. Best reportedly “cared for Arridy like a son,” routinely giving him gifts and joining the effort to save his life. Best became one of Arridy’s supporters. He stated, “He probably didn’t even realize he was about to die; all he did was cheerfully sit and play with a toy train I had given him.”
Arridy asked for ice cream as his final supper. He displayed “blank confusion” when asked about being put to death. Joe won’t die, he told the warden, not understanding what the gas chamber meant.
Joe didn’t finish his ice cream before he was brought away to the execution chamber, so he asked that it be chilled so he could have it later, not realizing that he would shortly be put to death and be gone forever.
Upon being led to the gas chamber, he reportedly smiled. He was initially a little anxious, but as the warden took his hand and soothed him, he became calm. Arridy’s mother visited him on the day of the execution but couldn’t bear to stay. None of his family was present during the execution.
Roy Best was reportedly in tears throughout the execution, and he had earlier begged Colorado Governor Teller Ammons to commute Arridy’s sentence. Ammons declined to have Arridy’s sentence reduced or to grant him a pardon.
Posthumous Pardon of Joe Arridy
Research into guaranteeing fair interrogations and confessions led to renewed interest in several cases, including Arridy’s. Moreover, the death sentence for criminals with mental disabilities was declared illegal by the US Supreme Court.
In addition to commissioning a gravestone for his grave in 2007, a group of admirers established the non-profit Friends of Joe Arridy. It campaigned to highlight the unfairness of his case.
David A. Martinez, an attorney who became engaged, assembled a 400-page petition for a pardon from Governor Bill Ritter, a former district attorney in Colorado, using materials gathered by the Friends, Robert Perske’s book about Arridy’s case, as well as his research.
Ritter granted Joe Arridy a complete and unconditional pardon in 2011 based on the available evidence and other reviews, stating that while doing so “cannot rectify this awful incident in Colorado history, it is in the interests of justice and simple decency to restore his good name.”
Next, read about the Chilling True Story of the Rougarou, the Swamp Monster. Then, about the Tiananmen Square Massacre: The Story China Doesn’t Want YOU To Know!
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