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Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

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Perske had to know more. He spent many hours cranking microfilm readers in libraries. He studied long-shelved court records and commitment papers and unearthed confidential files and notes about Arridy's mental status and his life in an institution. The more he read, the less sense it all made. There was plenty of evidence in the case, but precious little of it pointed to Arridy, and nothing was quite what it seemed — least of all the so-called confession.

In 1995 Perske published a modest but solidly researched book about the Arridy case, Deadly Innocence? "All I wanted to do was get the facts down," he says now. "I'm not a brain. I'm not a great writer. But I've been able to document 75 cases where people with disabilities were coerced into confessions and convicted, then found to be innocent. This is the most telling of all the cases I've worked on."

Although it was well received among disability activists, Perske's book drew little attention elsewhere when it first appeared. Yet its publication set a process in motion that would lead to unexpected places. To a screenplay by a Trinidad writer about Arridy's life and death, now under option with a film-development company. To a grassroots campaign to clear his name, launched by a group calling itself Friends of Joe Arridy. And to the first posthumous pardon in Colorado's history, issued by Governor Bill Ritter last year, in the final days of his administration.

America's rites of capital punishment have changed greatly in the past 75 years. A decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that severely retarded prisoners cannot be executed, regardless of their crimes. Such a prospect would be particularly unlikely in Colorado, which has executed only one man in the past four decades. Yet in the wake of the Aurora theater shootings, the state's death penalty is getting dusted off once again, amid speculation that the only possible defense for suspect James Holmes may be an insanity plea.

Faced with no viable legal alternative at the time, Arridy's lawyers contended that he was insane, too. The similarities between the two cases end there. Yet the Arridy case remains a cautionary tale for the ages — a story of grandstanding cops and a rush to judgment, an outraged community and a vengeful press, a serial killer and the perfect patsy.

It's a tale told by an imbecile, full of sound and fury, signifying justice gone insanely, fatally wrong.

click to enlarge Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn’t have committed. - HISTORICAL IMAGE FROM 2012 PRINT EDITION OF WESTWORD.
Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn’t have committed.
Historical image from 2012 print edition of Westword.

Around ten in the evening on August 15, 1936, Riley and Peggy Drain said goodnight to their two daughters and drove from their Pueblo bungalow to a benefit dance at a local nightclub. They returned a few hours later to find their world violated and destroyed.

As they headed to their front door, Peggy noticed that the light she'd left on in the front room was turned off. Riley, a local supervisor for the Works Project Administration, rushed to the back bedroom that the girls shared. Their bed, as a prosecutor would later put it, was "literally soaked with human gore."

Fifteen-year-old Dorothy Drain lay motionless on the bed, blood pooling from a deep gash in her skull. Curled up next to her sister, twelve-year-old Barbara was unresponsive but still alive. The coroner would determine that Dorothy had been raped and suffered a fatal blow to the brain from a sharp weapon, such as an ax — quite possibly killed first, then sexually assaulted. Barbara had been bludgeoned in the head, perhaps with the blunt end of the ax, and was in a coma.

The grim scene was remarkably similar to another savage attack on two women sleeping in a bed together that had occurred just two weeks earlier, in a home three blocks away. Sally Crumpley, a 72-year-old woman visiting from Kansas, had been killed while she slept; her host, 58-year-old Lilly McMurtree, had been badly injured. Both women had been struck in the head.

The same night Dorothy Drain was killed, two women in the neighborhood claimed to have been grabbed from behind on the street by a short, swarthy man, described in news accounts as "Mexican," but they had fought him off. Clearly, there was a sex maniac on the loose in Pueblo.

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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