Friday, June 01, 2007

Wrongful execution in Colorado

The year was 1939. His name was Joe Arridy. He was mentally retarded, with the mind of a five-year-old. He liked to play with toy trains. Some fought valiantly for his life, even more so because he was innocent of the crime for which he died after 20 agonizing minutes in Colorado's gas chamber.

Now it appears that a movie about this sad saga is in the works. Called The Woodpecker Waltz, the movie will celebrate the efforts of those who tried to save him, and focus attention anew on the terrible and irretractable mistakes that occur under the death penalty system in the United States and worldwide.

But let's step back and look at the story.

Young Joe Arridy was dropped from the Pueblo elementary school system at an early age because he could not keep up with the other children and he became a soft and harmless wanderer who could be seen walking all over the town of Pueblo. Later, a judge ordered the young man to be sent to the “Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives” at Grand Junction. At age 22, Joe ran away from the institution and, while trying to find his way home to his parents, was arrested for vagrancy in the Cheyenne railroad yards on August 26, 1936.

Eleven days earlier on August 15, Dorothy Drain, 15, and Barbara Drain, 12, were brutally beaten with an ax. The older girl was killed and the younger one was rushed to the hospital and saved. Dragnets were organized in towns up and down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

Cheyenne Sheriff George Carroll decided to interrogate Joe regarding the crime. According to the sheriff, Joe gave a changing series of stories. Then he finally admitted that he was the ax murderer.

Carroll then called Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady with the news. Grady received it with great surprise. The Pueblo police department already had the killer, Frank Aguilar, in custody. They even found the weapon -- an ax head -- in Aguilar’s home.

Even so, one element in the investigation was still missing: Aguilar refused to confess to the crime. With this in mind, Sheriff Carroll interrogated Joe again and got him to admit that he was present at the murder scene “with a man named Frank.” Both Aguilar and Joe were sent to death row for the murder of Dorothy Drain.

As strange as it may seem for a prison official, Warden Roy Best developed a warm friendship with Joe Arridy. He gave him toys to play with in his cell. The tough warden took Joe home on Christmas Eve of 1939 and presented him with a toy train. The toy train ran an express lane down the corridor of Death Row. A death row inmate would reach through the bars and poke the train over, and Joe would joyfully yell out: “Train wreck! Fix the wreck!” To make Joe happy, the hardened death row inmates would send the toy train back down the corridor to Joe.

Then as his friend’s death date neared, the warden joined with legal professionals in an attempt to stop the execution. Chaplain Albert Shaller stood with the warden, saying that if Joe went to the chamber, he would only deliver the Catholic Church’s Last Rites for a Child.

During these last frenzied battles, Denver attorney Gail Ireland became a real hero. Ireland worked day and night, vigorously pursuing every legal avenue to save Joe’s life, and finally losing a 3-2 decision in the Colorado Supreme Court. Ireland eloquently argued that we are: “doing the State of Colorado a real service if we can keep it from committing a murder itself. Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the State of Colorado to live down the disgrace.” Governor Teller Ammons made a stern call for Joe Arridy’s immediate death. It took over 20 minutes for young Joe Arridy to die in the gas chamber.


This Saturday, June 2, 2007, at 11 a.m. in Canon City’s Greenwood Cemetery, a dignifying tombstone will be placed on the grave of death row inmate Joe Arridy. Arridy was executed in the Canon City prison gas chamber on January 6, 1939, and buried on top of Woodpecker Hill. The tombstone, which will feature an etching of a replica of Joe’s toy train, is being placed and dedicated by a number of citizens in the Pikes Peak Region who have taken a newfound interest in Arridy’s life and death. Evidence uncovered in the past decade indicates that he was a victim of police and prosecutorial misconduct. This is the first time in the history of Colorado that a personalized tombstone will be placed on the grave of an executed prisoner.

Apparently an outfit called the Keller Entertainment Group has optioned the screenplay entitled The Woodpecker Waltz with the intent of producing a movie. Producer Micheline Keller writes that what attracted her to the script was not only the quality of the writing and the tragic story, but the element of hope in the people that fought so valiantly to save young Joe’s life. She states: “The beauty that exists in the script is that it so eloquently demonstrates that even in the face of tragedy and a flawed world, there are still righteous people who fight for justice and truth… and as long as that continues to happen, there is hope for the survival of our world.”


Anonymous said...

Your post is wrong--it shouldn't say "Wrongful execution in Colorado"--it should say, "State-Sanctioned Cold-Blooded Murder in Colorado". That's what this was.

I think people become inured to innocence claims due the prevalence of bogus ones, e.g., Tookie, Kevin Cooper, John Byrd, Mumia Abu Jamal and Roger Coleman--so that cases where there was a real injustice and real malevolence can get lost in the shuffle.

The death penalty is a just outcome for murder. It is also a weapon to be wielded by unscrupulous people. Those of us who agree with the death penalty need to unflinchingly look at this evil. It is the evil of Nifong. It is the evil of Tulia. It is the evil of Lenell Geter. The machinery of state is powerful--with or without the death penalty. It is power that can be abused by evil men. As citizens, each of us has an obligation to think about that.

When you get right down to it, there is one word that is particularly apt--contemptible.

Anonymous said...

The primary prerequiste for punishment should be justice, and like the previous blogger, I can't believe that our law enforcement or judiciary can provide true justice.

I don't consider myself a liberal (or conservative either); but the failings of the criminal justice system are just too numerous to recount. While I agree that that the death penalty would be apt for a murderer, I'd rather sentence all to life imprisionment and let G-d take care of their punishment. And I mean no frills, hard time punishment.

Space Puppy