The Happiest Inmate on Death Row (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part Two

The outcome of Joe Arridy's trial seemed almost a foregone conclusion.  

Newspaper coverage already declared him guilty and his attorney made no attempt to question any of the evidence against him or how his confession had been obtained.   The only real sticking point was whether some so mentally challenged could be held responsible for his actions.   Testing revealed that he had an IQ of 45 and three state psychiatrists agreed that Arridy was "“incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with a criminal intent."   There was also the fact that Barbara Drain had only identified Frank Aguilar as being at the crime scene and not Arridy.  

Still, Frank Aguilar's confession implicating Arridy, along with the anger surrounding Dorothy Drain's murder, overrode any of these objections.  While there would be no question of executing someone with this kind of intellectual disability today, the 1930s was a very different time.  It only took a jury four hours to find Joe Arridy guilty and to recommend the death sentence in his Joe_Arridy[1]case.   

Both Arridy and Frank Aguilar were held at Colorado state penitentiary where the executions would be carried out.    In Frank Aguilar's case, the execution took place on August 13, 1937, only months after his conviction.   It was a bizarre spectacle considering that a witness died of a heart attack at the same time that Aguilar died in the gas chamber.   His elderly mother died in hospital soon afterward.   Riley Drain, father of Dorothy Drain, voiced his satisfaction at watching Aguilar die.  "I am happy tonight," he told the press.  "But the job is only half done.  I want to be there when Joe Arridy goes too." 

But not everyone agreed that Joe Arridy deserved to die.  Warden Roy Best, a man who was widely known for his tough-minded stance on crime, found himself sympathizing with this condemned inmate who had the mind of a child.   He even bought a toy train for Arridy to play with and later described him as "the happiest man on Death Row."    Along with a warm bed and regular meals, Joe Arridy was happy at being treated better than he ever had been in his life.  He certainly never experienced any of the teasing or bullying he had endured for much of his life.  Guards, inmates, and the prison chaplain, Albert Schaller, went out of their way to protect him from the brutal realities of his imprisonment.  Whenever he wound up his toy train and sent it along the floor of the cell block, another inmate would wind it up and send it back to him. 

It was Warden Best who recruited Gail L. Ireland, a crusading attorney would would later become Colorado's attorney-general.  Through his dogged efforts, Ireland managed to secure nine stays of execution until the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in a three to two decision to let the execution proceed.    The end finally came on January 6, 1939, two years after Frank Aguilar's execution.  The governor of Colorado had already phoned the warden and told him to schedule the execution.  Albert Schaller and Roy Best then proceeded to explain to Joe Arridy that he was scheduled to die.   As Roy Best told reporters, the condemned prisoner seemed unable to understand that he would be executed.   At one point, he was quoted as saying, "You can't kill Joe Arridy because Joe Arridy never killed anybody."

Even on the day of his execution, Joe Arridy requested ice cream and lots of it for his final meal .  Whether he was fully aware of what was going to happen seems hard to guess at this late date though he definitely enjoyed being the centre of attention.   Albert Schaller came in and carefully read the last rites to him and Joe crossed himself before going back to play with his train.  Then Roy Best came in and read the death warrant before he was taken to the gas chamber to be executed.  To ensure that everything was in working order, a pig had been killed in the chamber one day previously.  

Stopping only to give his toy train to his death row neighbour,  Arridy was placed in the chamber where he was strapped down and blindfolded.   Roy Best patted his hand and the chaplain gave him a simple, "Goodbye Joe" before the chamber was closed.  No members of the Drain family were in attendance though Joe' s mother had been there for one final visit before the execution.    Grinning until the very end, he took three deep gulps of the hydrogen cyanide gas that ended his life.  He was formally declared dead just minutes after the gas cleared from the chamber.   The next day, Joe Arridy was buried the next day in the Woodpecker Hill cemetery on prison grounds.

51S1Xx9APVL._AA240_QL65_[1]So, was he really guilty?   Or did the police take advantage of his intellectual disabilities to extract a false confession?   Decades after his execution, Joe Arridy's case has become a rallying point for opponents of the death penalty as well as disability activists.   In 1995, Robert Perske, a prominent legal activist working for the rights of the intellectually disabled, published a troubling book looking at the Arridy case and numerous others like it.   The book, Unequal Justice?,  highlighted how vulnerable people with intellectual deficits or similar disabilities are to giving a false confession during police interrogations.     Describing Joe Arridy's conviction, along with over seventy other cases in which people coerced into giving false confession, Perske's book generated renewed interest into Joe Arridy's case.   Inspired by the book, a group calling itself The Friends of Joe Arridy launched a grassroots campaign for a posthumous pardon. 

On January 7 2011, Colorado governor Bill Ritter Jr. issued an unconditional pardon for Joe Arridy, the first of its kind in Colorado's history.   The pardon came nine years after the landmark Atkins v. Virginia case outlawing the execution of prisoners deemed to be mentally retarded.   Today though, police interrogation of suspects with intellectual disabilities is still a controversial issue in many jurisdictions and cases of false imprisonment involving disabled prisoners continue to be reported by groups such as the Innocence Project.

Visitors to the Woodpecker Hill cemetery on the grounds of Colorado's state prison can find Joe Arridy's carefully tended  grave.   A new tombstone, two feet tall, was placed on the grave in 2006.  It features a picture of Joe and his toy train.


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