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Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

Page 9 of 9

The story of Joe Arridy might have vanished forever at that point — if not for a poem about a condemned man and his toy train, which led to Robert Perske's book, which led to so much more.

Trinidad journalist Daniel Leonetti read about Perske's book when it was first published and immediately got in touch with the author. Over the years, the two have swapped research and theories, and Leonetti has written a screenplay about the case, focusing on Gail Ireland's efforts to save a client who doesn't even understand what is happening to him. The script is now under option by Keller Entertainment Group.

"He was a righteous man," Leonetti says of Ireland. "If he saw something was wrong, he had to do something about it — despite his social status. Even his wife questioned him when he took this on."

Perske's work was also a source of inspiration for Craig Severa, an advocacy specialist for The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, a nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities. Severa recalls going with Perske to visit Arridy's grave in the prison cemetery. The only marker was "a rusted-out motorcycle license plate on a steel pole" that had the deceased's name as ARRDY. Severa decided to raise money for a decent headstone, hitting up judges, attorneys and community groups.

Along the way, Severa talked to longtime residents in Cañon City and learned some local folklore about Arridy's grave. People said it glowed at night because it was the resting place of a child.

Severa believes Arridy's story still has bearing today, when many chronically arrested street people have some degree of mental impairment. He trains police cadets how to recognize and deal with suspects with disabilities. "I've got one guy I've gone to court with 42 times," he says. "But the system has become more understanding. There are judges who are absolutely great in Colorado Springs. The danger comes when you're dealing with guys who have a verbal IQ of 72, but to the police they look completely normal."

By the time the new tombstone was unveiled, in 2007, a small group calling itself the Friends of Joe Arridy was talking about organizing a campaign to seek a pardon. Denver attorney David Martinez attended the ceremony and was quickly enlisted in the cause.

"That's where I met Bob Perske," Martinez says. "He said he talked to a lot of attorneys who said they would try to help him get a pardon for Joe, and they never called him back. I can't help everybody, but I figured I might try to change his opinion about attorneys."

Three years later, Martinez delivered a massive 400-page appeal for an Arridy pardon to Governor Ritter's office, based largely on Perske's research and official records. A former prosecutor, Ritter wasn't known for giving executive clemency much of a workout. Perske was pessimistic.

He was sitting in his office in Darien, Connecticut, the day Martinez called to tell him the pardon had been granted — 72 years and a day after Arridy's execution. Perske sent out e-mails to the Friends.

"We suddenly felt so happy and free, like we were at a state fair in January," he recalls. "We learned a long time ago that if we face a tough situation like Joe's and give up too quickly, we may miss out on a fantastic conclusion."

Ritter issued a statement citing the "great likelihood" that Arridy was innocent of the murder of Dorothy Drain. He also noted that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling abolished the death penalty for the mentally impaired as cruel and unusual punishment — although what constitutes sufficient impairment is still a matter of debate. (The Supremes failed to intervene last month when Texas executed Marvin Wilson, an inmate with an IQ of 61.)

"Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history," Ritter said. "It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name."

The Friends of Joe Arridy added the date of the pardon to his tombstone, and an epitaph: HERE LIES AN INNOCENT MAN.

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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