The recent pardon of Joe Arridy, a Colorado man who was executed more than 70 years ago, raises serious questions about how it could take so long to clear an innocent person’s name.
Last Friday, January 7, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a posthumous pardon to a man who was executed in 1939 for killing a teenage girl. Joe Arridy, who had an I.Q. of 46, was convicted in 1937 and executed by lethal gas at the age of 23. Today, he would be constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty due to his mental disability.
A press release from the Governor’s office stated, “An overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.”
Arridy confessed to the 1936 sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain that occurred in Pueblo, Colorado. Both Drain and her sister were attacked in their home with a hatchet on August 15 or August 16, 1936.
His confession is believed to have been false due to the significant inconsistencies with the actual facts of the case. For example, Arridy made statements that he acted alone and killed Drain with a blunt instrument, not a hatchet. Additionally, another man, Frank Aguilar, was arrested at Drain’s funeral and charged with murder. As a result of the inconsistencies, Arridy was forced to give a second confession, in which he changed his story and said he actually committed the crime with Aguilar.
Aguilar, however, always maintained that he had never met Arridy, and he confessed to his attorney that he was guilty. Even the murder weapon was found in Aguilar’s house. Aguilar was found guilty and executed in August 1937.
In a sworn statement, a doctor from the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, where Arridy lived since he was committed at 10-years-old, described him as having the mind of a six and a half year old, incapable of giving a reliable confession or defending himself in court. According to the Governor’s statement, Arridy spent his days in prison playing with a toy train, and he asked for nothing but ice cream for his three final meals.
Today, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) protects mentally disabled individuals like Arridy from being sentenced to death, holding that such executions are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
Although this marks the first time any executed person has been pardoned in Colorado, we must ask why it took more than seven decades to clear Arridy’s name. His guilt has been doubted since the time of conviction, and his story has been featured in many books and articles. Even though it has been proven that wrongful convictions do happen, and 265 individuals to date have been exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project, Colorado is not represented in any of those cases. While it may be appropriate to praise Governor Ritter for issuing this pardon, Arridy’s case must also serve as a call to action for our elected officials, public defenders and prosecutors, among others. His pardon should not be viewed as an act of justice, but rather a symbol of the injustice that pervades our system.