Outgoing Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has granted a posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, a mentally disabled man who was executed for murder more than 70 years ago, despite evidence suggesting his innocence.
“The tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution … merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution,” Ritter said.
In 1936, someone entered the Pueblo home of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain and her 12-year-old sister, Barbara, while their parents were at a dance. Both girls were attacked with a hatchet. Dorothy’s injuries proved to be fatal, but her sister somehow survived the attack, according to the 1995 book “Deadly Innocence?”
In the days that followed, investigators arrested 35-year-old Frank Aguilar, a Mexican native who had recently been fired by the girls’ father, Riley Drain, who was a supervisor for the Works Progress Administration. Aguilar had reportedly been acting suspiciously, and when authorities searched his home, they found a hatchet with several large nicks, which was consistent with the girls’ injuries.
Authorities had means, motive and opportunity, but they were lacking a confession.
During this time, investigators in Cheyenne, Wyo., were questioning Arridy. The 20-year-old, who had an IQ of 46 and behaved more like a child than a man, had been picked up by railroad detectives in East Cheyenne for wandering around a rail yard.
While Arridy was in custody, Laramie County Sheriff George J. Carroll learned that he was a recent escapee from the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives at Grand Junction. Carroll was also aware of the recent homicide in Colorado.
“Carroll claimed Joe confessed to beating Dorothy with a club,” Robert Perske, a former Colorado minister and “Deadly Innocence?” author, told AOL News. “He said Joe admitted to killing and raping the girl, so the sheriff called the news people and then called the chief of police in Pueblo.”
According to Perske, authorities in Pueblo were shocked by the news. After all, they already had a suspect in custody. Nonetheless, they went back to Aguilar, who eventually offered his own confession, which included Arridy’s alleged involvement.
“Carroll felt [Arridy] was not worth anything,” Perske said. “He wanted a claim to fame, and this was his chance.”
Ritter also said there was an overwhelming body of evidence that indicates Arridy was innocent.
“[This would include] false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else,” the governor said.
Aguilar’s trial began in December 1936. His confession was entered into evidence, as was the testimony of Barbara Drain. While the jury was out, Aguilar finally admitted his actual role in the case and told his attorney that he was guilty and that Arridy had nothing to do with it. The attorney asked the judge for permission to change his client’s plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, but the judge said no, Perske said.
The jury later came back with a guilty verdict, and Aguilar was sentenced to death. According to Perske, who has read all the trial transcripts, Barbara was never asked by the defense or prosecution whether Aguilar had an accomplice.
Aguilar was later implicated in the August 1936 attack on Sally Crumpley, 72, and her niece, R.O. McMurtree, 58. The women had been attacked by a man with a hammer inside their Grand Junction home. McMurtree survived the attack, but Crumpley died of skull fractures. McMurtree identified Aguilar as the women’s attacker, but, according to Perske, charges were never brought because he was already sentenced to death.
Arridy’s trial began in April 1937. Prosecutors used his alleged confession against him and relied heavily on testimony from Sheriff Carroll, who recounted his conversations with him. Barbara Drain was not called as a witness by either side.
The jury ultimately found Arridy guilty and sentenced him to death.
“[Arridy] took no notice of the pronouncement of the death verdict as delivered by the jury foreman,” The Chieftain newspaper reported.
On Aug. 13, 1937, Frank Aguilar was executed. Arridy was to follow him two months later, but Colorado State Prison Warden Roy Best took a liking to him, Perske said.
“The warden came to love him very much,” he said. “He let him have magazines and scissors in his cell. On Christmas Eve he was invited up to the warden’s house, and he and his wife gave Joe a toy train. He would play with that train in the cell and send it out between the bars scooting down the halls. He also got a little wind-up car. Often, at night, he’d scoot the little car out, and they’d hear him yell ‘Car wreck! Car wreck!’ And they’d all laugh. All of the inmates came to like him.”
Whenever reporters would interview Arridy behind bars, he would always tell them he was happy and never wanted to leave, Perske said.
Arridy got nine stays of execution before he was sent to the gas chamber.
On Jan. 5, 1939, the day before he was put to death, the 23-year-old asked for and received ice cream for his final three meals. Best also brought him a box of homemade candy, which he shared with the other inmates. He was reportedly happy that night, and his mood changed little the following morning.
“The chaplain had to give him the last rights of a child,” Perske said. “They recited the Lord’s prayer two words at a time, all the way through. Afterward, as they were walking up Woodpecker Hill, where the chamber was, Joe was talking to the warden about how he was going to be playing a harp now. He was smiling all the way up. It was kind of like he was going on a hike or something.
“When they put him in the chair, he was still smiling,” Perske said. “When they started to put the black hood over Joe’s face, he stopped smiling, so the warden patted him on the arm a couple times. The priest stayed with him for a bit and then walked out with the warden. Both had tears in their eyes. Then the door was closed, and he was executed.”
It was not until 1961 that Perske, an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, learned of Arridy’s life and eventual fate. He spent more than 30 years looking into the story, and a couple years ago he approached Colorado attorney David A. Martinez and asked for help.
“He said, ‘I think Joe is innocent, and I really think he deserves a pardon,'” Martinez told AOL News. “As I found out more about it, Joe became more compelling to me, and I felt Joe was innocent. I found out that he had been classified an imbecile and that his mental capacity was that of a 4-year-old. It was a case of frontier justice. The passion and prejudices of the community made them want to hang up the varmints, if you will.”
Martinez assembled a 500-page petition regarding the case and put together a synopsis of it that Perske has since described as the “most convincing rendition” he has ever read. Gov. Ritter agreed and on Friday granted Joe Arridy’s posthumous pardon.
“Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history,” Ritter said. “It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”
Neither Martinez nor Perske has been able to locate any of Arridy’s living relatives. He remains buried in the prison cemetery. Perske said he would like to have made for him a tombstone that says, “Here lies an innocent man.”
“I’m still not sure what to say about the pardon,” Perske said. “I’ve been trying to answer questions as best as I can, but it kind of comes back to an old saying I hang on to. That is, ‘If you face a tough situation and give up too quickly, you may miss out on a fantastic conclusion.’ That is how I feel.”
Martinez said he is “absolutely surprised” by the pardon.
“There had never been a posthumous pardon issued by a governor of Colorado before, so that is a precedent in some ways. I think it is also monumental in that it brings hope to the future, particularly for the intellectually disabled community. It shows there is progress being made in society, and they are entitled to as much respect as any individual.”
Martinez added, “It was an honor and a privilege to do what I could do, and I was really fueled by the passion of Bob Perske.”
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