Joe Arridy: Mentally Impaired Falsely Convicted to the Death Penalty

Andrei Tapalaga

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Warden Roy Best reads the death warrant to Arridy at his cell door, shortly before his execution. (Source: Westword)

We believe in the justice system to bring those who have wronged the peace to justice. It would be an injustice if someone innocent were to be placed on death row for someone else's crime. The law, subdued by its own power can sometimes forget about its human aspect and its ability to make mistakes.

This ideology never being wrong led to many cases where innocent people have been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit. This is one of the reasons why capital punishment has been eliminated in most parts of the world.

One such case was that of Joe Arridy, a young man with mental disabilities from Colorado. His mental disabilities made Arridy very naive and easily influenced by those around him. This also made him very child-minded, although he was 21 years of age when he was “caught” and executed.

The crime

On the 15th of August, 1936 the parents of Dorothy Drain, a 15-year-old girl found their daughter in a pool of blood when they returned home from work. Barbara, the younger sister was also hit in the head but by a miracle, she managed to survive.

This provoked panic in Colorado, putting a lot of pressure on the police force to find this criminal. Another two women had reported being assaulted by a man with darker skin color close to the Drain family’s home on the same day.

After a few days, the police force was feeling the pressure, especially Sherrif George Carroll who had been the first to reach the crime scene. That is why Joe Arridy was caught in the same neighborhood a few days after the incident and he was arrested as he confessed that he killed Dorothy Drain.

Forced by the law to confess lies

What actually happened here was the law using its power into blaming someone innocent to take the heat for the crime so that the police force could get the pressure from the locals and the media off their backs.

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Mugshots of Joe Arridy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Arridy was frightened by the threats of police officers who said that it was in his best interest to confess to the killing of Dorothy, otherwise bad things would happen to him.

The police force abused his mental disabilities and took advantage of his frightened child-like mentality to make him confess. Arridy’s parents were from Syria, explaining why he had a darker skin pigment. The local media at the time dug a bit deeper to find out that Arridy’s parents were cousins, explaining the possible origin of his mental disability.

His mental disabilities affected his speech as he was not able to pronounce long phrases, nor to identify certain things such as different colors. This made him seem as if he wasn’t able to even kill a fly, especially being child-minded and very frightened.

The written confession wasn’t written by Joe as he didn’t know how to write and it mentioned that he had hit the two girls in the head with a baseball bat, although the forensics team said that the head injuries were made with the use of a large blade due to the deep cuts that would be impossible to inflict with a wooden bat.

The real suspect?

Meanwhile, a new possible suspect was found by the name of Frank Aguilar. The man was holding an ax that seemed to match with the deathly blows inflicted upon the victims. This made people start questioning the law, as Arridy was told by the cops to confess to hitting the victims with a baseball bat although the marks were clearly from a blow with an ax or at least a blade.

In my eyes, the law knew they had messed up in their own fictional arguments so they decided to condemn both Frank Aguilar and Joe Arridy for the murder of Dorothy Drain and the attempted murder of Barbara Drain, as well as the assault of two other women. However, at this point, it was clear that Aguilar was the real criminal and Arridy wasn’t, although Aguilar kept saying that Joe did it and Joe’s naive mind was approving of this argument.

However, the forensics team clearly declared that this was the doing of only one person. Nothing added up. Maybe if the law showed that they had actually made a mistake, people would lose faith in the justice system.

On death row with a smile on his face

The death sentence received by Joe Arridy wasn’t only unjust because he never committed the crime, but also unfair because as a person with mental disabilities he should have never been inside a prison. Criminals that suffer from mental disabilities are not prosecuted with prison time or death sentences because they cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad, therefore they have no criminal intentions. Their place is in mental asylums.

Roy Best, the warden of the prison where Joe was imprisoned, said that he was the happiest criminal to hear that he was on death row. However, no justice staff understood that due to his mental disability, Joe didn’t understand the notion of death and therefore wasn’t frightened of it, the reason why he smiled when he heard that he was sentenced to death.

His child's mind influenced by these mental disabilities was also shown from Joe’s last meal which was ice cream. Another factor was the toy train set that he kept playing with within his cell. When the date of 6th of January 1939 came, Joe Arridy gave his only possession which was the train set to another inmate and left for his execution.

The way executions were done in Colorado at the time was by gassing inmates to death. Joe Arridy was tied to a chair inside the gas chamber, and in a few moments, he was gone. The warden even saw a few of the guards cry after the execution, deep inside they knew that they had become criminals for killing an innocent person.

Aftermath

The lawyer that tried to get Arridy off death row was Gail Ireland, but he could not match the power of the law in Colorado. Ireland knew for certain that Arridy was not capable of such a crime. After his execution, Ireland wrote a petition to the Supreme Court of Colorado where he mentioned that it would be long until the shame of Colorado will dissipate.

After seven decades, in 2011 the governor of the state of Colorado, Bill Ritter, offered a post-mortem pardon:

“Joe Arridy’s pardon cannot erase the tragic event in Colorado’s history. It is in the interest of justice and for the sake of decency that his name is restored.” (Quote by Bill Ritter, 2011)

Let this be a lesson to all who trust the justice system, which is run by humans who naturally make mistakes and are obsessed with power.

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