Joe Arridy: Pardoned long after his execution, mentally impaired man gets online props

The most shameful date in the history of Colorado's death penalty is January 6, 1939 -- the day the state executed a bewildered 23-year-old man with an IQ of 46, a man who was innocent in just about every sense of the word

His name was Joe Arridy. And three-quarters of a century after his death in the gas chamber, the injustice done in his case has finally been recognized by state leaders and in cyberspace.

A Pueblo native, the son of Syrian immigrants, Arridy had been diagnosed as an "imbecile" -- an actual term at the time for measuring degrees of mental retardation, not to be confused with being an "idiot" or a "moron" -- and sent at age ten to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. As a young man he began skipping out of the place and riding the rails.

In August 1936, Arridy was picked up in the railyards of Cheyenne for vagrancy. Learning that his new captive used to live in Pueblo, Sheriff George Carroll, a Wyoming superstar lawman who'd made headlines over his shootout with Ma Barker's gang, soon got a confession out of Arridy to the notorious rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in Pueblo that had occurred ten days earlier. When it turned out the Pueblo police already had a suspect and a murder weapon that didn't jive with Arridy's (or Carroll's) version, the sheriff extracted a "corrected" statement from Arridy that indicated he and the other suspect committed the crime together.

As detailed in Robert Perske's book on the case, Deadly Innocence?, Arridy was a pleasant, agreeable patsy who liked to hammer nails and couldn't distinguish between the colors red and black. It's likely he wasn't even in Pueblo at the time of the murder. He liked to play with toy trains in the death house and couldn't comprehend the seriousness of his situation. Warden Roy Best called him "the happiest prisoner on death row" and worked behind the scenes to try to get stays of execution. But time ran out in the first week of 1939.

Last year, in one of his final acts in office, Governor Bill Ritter issued a posthumous pardon for Arridy. A website in his honor, Friends of Joe Arridy, offers more information about Joe and how his story was rediscovered by researchers. There's also a screenplay and a possible movie in the works.

And now Joe's friends have something else to celebrate -- the debut of a Wikipedia page devoted to his case, complete with links to some of the bizarre news stories of the day about the "weak-witted sex slayer." The page is a somber memorial of a rush to judgment that trampled the rights -- and ultimately the life -- of one of Colorado's most vulnerable citizens.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Bill Ritter's commutations draw praise, bitter rebukes."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast