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  • A 23-year old man sits in a prison cell with the widest smile painted across his face.

  • Clasped in his right hand is a toy train.

  • He pushes it right up to his eyes, saying hi to the little people he imagines are in

  • the carriages.

  • He winds it up and sets it off down the landing, giggling with excitement as he does so.

  • A few seconds later, another prisoner sends the train back to his cell.

  • It's hard to believe he's about to face the gas chamber.

  • It's even harder to believe he's been convicted of an extremely grizzly ax murder.

  • He might be guilty as charged, but he's liked by all the guards and the warden.

  • That warden in fact calls this manthe happiest prisoner on death row.”

  • This is the story of a man named Joe Arridy.

  • He was born in 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado, to parents Henry and Mary.

  • Both were immigrants from Syria who'd gone to the USA to make a better life for themselves.

  • It was tough at first, but Henry's job at a steel mill afforded the family certain luxuries

  • they hadn't had before.

  • There was a problem, though, with their young son.

  • They knew very well that Joe wasn't like a lot of the other kids, a conviction which

  • was substantiated when his elementary school principal one day approached Henry and Mary

  • and told them that Joe wasn't able to learn with the other kids.

  • He could barely string a sentence together, never mind wrestle with difficult spelling

  • and arithmetic.

  • His parents thought the best thing for Joe was to send him to a school that could better

  • deal with his learning difficulties, so off he was packed to theState Home and Training

  • School for Mental Defectives.”

  • Only this place was not salubrious in the least for young Joe.

  • Being short and having prominent ears, Joe was the target of bullying from other kids

  • in the home.

  • He suffered beatings at the bully's hands, just as he did when he returned to his neighborhood.

  • Even the adults were unkind, some of them laughing whenSlow Joewalked down the

  • street.

  • Such were the times.

  • When he was 21, he just picked up and left, jumping on a freight rail car, not knowing

  • where it would take him.

  • He ended up in the railyards of Cheyenne in the state of Wyoming, wandering around, trying

  • his best to find food and shelter.

  • That's when the cops picked him up and his life went from bad to worse.

  • Those cops had been looking for someone, a man presumably, who'd committed horrendous

  • crimes about 200 miles away in Pueblo, Colorado.

  • They soon found out that Joe came from Pueblo, and what's more, a railcar ran from there

  • to Cheyenne.

  • That was enough to put Joe in handcuffs.

  • The crimes had indeed been extreme, and certainly enough for the public to put pressure on the

  • authorities.

  • No one in Pueblo went to bed feeling safe.

  • That was because someone had entered a house owned by the Drain family.

  • It was nighttime and the parents were at a dance.

  • Their two daughters, Dorothy and Barbara, were sound asleep at home.

  • A mad man entered the house and bludgeoned them with an ax, killing Dorothy and severely

  • injuring Barbara.

  • Cheyenne Sheriff, George Carroll, looking at Joe, thought he was a misfit.

  • Not only was he disheveled in appearance, but the young tearaway wasn't exactly descriptive

  • when talking about what he'd been doing the past few weeks.

  • With some grilling, Joe confessed to the crime, although the tactic of intense policepersuasion

  • was embraced.

  • On August 27, 1936, people picked up the Reading Eagle newspaper, and on the first page in

  • bold capital letters they saw the headline, “YOUTH CONFESSES ATTACKING GIRLS.”

  • The second paragraph of the story read: Joe Arridy, 21, arrested here last night as

  • a vagrant, confessed, Sheriff George Carroll said, to the murder.

  • He said also, according to the sheriff, that he killed Barbara Drain, 12.

  • The younger, however, was not killed, but is still unconscious in a Pueblo hospital,

  • her skull crushed.”

  • The report went on to say that Joe had confessed to planning the murder, waiting for the parents

  • to leave the house and then going inside and hacking the girls with his ax.

  • This came as quite a shock to a man named Arthur Grady.

  • He was the Pueblo police chief and he already had a guy in a jail cell for the brutal slaying.

  • That guy was Frank Aguilar, an employee of Mr. Drain.

  • When cops searched Aguilar's home, guess what they found?

  • An ax that looked like it could have been the weapon used in the crime.

  • Now we will look at another newspaper headline, this time in the Greely Daily Tribune.

  • The headline read: “Aguilar says he murdered Drain child.”

  • The article explained that Aguilar confessed to the crime by marking an X next to two five-page

  • confessions.

  • The other confession was also marked with an X, but an X written by Joe Arridy.

  • The story goes on to say that Arridy had escaped from a home for the mentally defective and

  • that later the two men had met the night of the murders and plotted to do the awful deed.

  • Another part of the story read, “The confessions were made under the questioning of warden

  • Roy Best.”

  • Don't forget that name.

  • The article failed to mention a few very important things, matters you could say were of mortal

  • importance.

  • At first, Aguilar had said he had never seen Joe Arridy before in his life, only after

  • some of that infamous persuasive police questioning he changed that statement to being with Joe

  • when the girls were killed.

  • Another giant omission was the fact that Joe hadn't said a word in the transcript of

  • the confession.

  • All the talk came from Aguilar.

  • In 1937, Aguilar was convicted of the crime and was subsequently executed, but at least

  • some people knew something wasn't quite right with Joe's signing of the confession.

  • Even so, his lawyer tried to argue that he wasn't guilty by reason of insanity, rather

  • than fight the case for his absolute innocence.

  • Think about it.

  • There wasn't an actual transcript of Joe's confession, which is a big deal.

  • Also, there was no evidence that put Joe close to the Drain house on the night of the crime.

  • It also came to light that Joe had said he killed the girl with a club, not an ax, as

  • if he'd been led on when he first talked to Sheriff Carroll.

  • Still, the lawyer went for the insanity defense.

  • It didn't work, which is not surprising because it very rarely does, then and now.

  • But when three state psychiatrists testified in the case something else came up.

  • That was the fact they all said that Joe had the mental age of a six-year-old.

  • His IQ was 46, which back then made him animbecile.”

  • Such a word was just formal medical lexicon in those days, just asretardwas.

  • Joe wasn't quite anidiotin the now obsolete classifications, but he also didn't

  • qualify as a “moron.”

  • Still, the psychiatrists said he wasincapable of distinguishing between right and wrong,

  • and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with a criminal intent.”

  • But what about his spoken confession to Sheriff Carroll?

  • Was it right that a man with the brain capacity of a little kid should be convicted of murder

  • for something he said under police duress?

  • Of course it wasn't, but the police could get away with more venality back then than

  • they currently get away with.

  • When Barbara Drain recovered from her injuries she wasn't suffering from amnesia and so

  • could talk about what happened on the night.

  • Things looked good for Joe because she said the guy in her bedroom was the man that worked

  • for her father, Frank Aguilar.

  • She also said she didn't recall Joe being there on the night of the attack.

  • It didn't seem to matter.

  • Joe was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

  • He wasn't alone, however, and there were numerous appeals.

  • Attorney Gail L. Ireland got behind him and said the evidence stated that Aguilar had

  • first said he committed the crime alone.

  • Furthermore, said Ireland, this other guy you've got locked is so mentally challenged

  • that he doesn't even know what execution means.

  • 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,” said Ireland in court.

  • The appeals seemed to work for a while, as did all the other petitions flooding in.

  • Just as the execution was around the corner, a stay was granted.

  • In fact, nine stays were granted in all, but those are just temporary delays.

  • What Ireland and all of Joe's supporters wanted was an exoneration, and that was looking

  • possible the more support that Joe received.

  • Meanwhile, Joe was in his cell on death row playing with his toy trucks and sending his

  • wind-up train past the cells of all the other prisoners' cells.

  • He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, probably because for the first time in a while

  • he had a place to sleep and was getting warm meals on a regular basis.

  • Warden Roy Best, who was there when Aguila and Joe wrote those “X's” was the one

  • that gave Joe the toys.

  • Why hadn't he said anything about Joe's mental state before if he felt so sorry for

  • him, you might be wondering.

  • That's not an easy question to answer.

  • Best became known as themost notoriouswarden in Colorado history.

  • He flogged prisoners, and he tortured them with other terrible punishments, and when

  • he thought someone was homosexual, he made them wear a dress and push a wheelbarrow full

  • of bricks around all day.

  • Nevertheless, he had a progressive side, too.

  • He developed educational programs so that prisoners might get a job once released.

  • He ensured women prisoners were kept safe from dangerous male prisoners and he even

  • introduced a dental care program in the prison.

  • It seems he also stood by prisoners who were mentally disabled.

  • Still, Joe didn't need more toys or caring words from the warden, what he needed was

  • the state to do something unusual and admit mistakes had happened.

  • This never comes easy.

  • Like many people who criticize the justice system say, it's often winning that counts,

  • not justice.

  • And as time passed, even with all the petitions, and support from Best himself, the state was

  • starting to look like a winner.

  • January 5, 1939.

  • The Reading Eagle published another article about Joe.

  • The headline read: “Condemned prisoner to give train to another slayer.”

  • The story called Joeweak-witted”, and said he had the intelligence of a six-year-old,

  • but it didn't question that injustice might have occurred, and instead called him a “slayer”.

  • The article said that when the Warden went to Joe's cell to tell him that his death

  • was impending, the only thing Joe said was give my train to the guy in the other cell.

  • The newspaper described this other guy, Angelo Agnes, as a “Denver negro condemned for

  • slaying his wife.”

  • Best told the paper that Joe had told him, “If I go, yes, I give my train to Agnes.”

  • He actually didn't really know what the gas chamber was, although he did have some

  • understanding of dying.

  • He had said to Best, “No, no.

  • Joe won't die.”

  • January 6, 1939.

  • Prison chaplain Father Albert Schaller walked into Joe's cell.

  • As soon as he looked at Joe again he knew a travesty of justice was about to happen.

  • The chaplain watched Joe eat the ice cream, the food he'd asked for when asked what

  • he wanted for his last meal.

  • He couldn't actually comprehend what that meant, of course.

  • When the chaplain read Joe his last rites, he had to do it very slowly and only two words

  • at a time so Joe could repeat the words.

  • The chaplain tried to hold back his emotions, but his eyes filled with tears.

  • When the chaplain explained to Joe what was about to happen, Joe just looked at him with

  • blank bewilderment.”

  • When led out of his cell the last thing he did was hand over the train as he'd promised.

  • He started to get nervous when being walked towards the execution room with about 50 other

  • people.

  • He might not have known what the gas chamber was, but he could sense something unusual

  • was happening now.

  • He started to shake on the way, only to be calmed down when warden Best held his hand.

  • Do you understand, Joe?” asked Best.

  • They are killing me,” Joe replied, still looking like a confused child.

  • When he entered the room, he was strapped into the chair.

  • At that point, he was grinning nervously.

  • When a blindfold was put over his eyes, for the first time in a long time, he wasn't

  • smiling at all.

  • He was petrified.

  • The warden and the chaplain said goodbye.

  • Joe mutteredbye”, trembling as he did so.

  • Then all he heard was the clanging of the steel door closing.

  • The airtight chamber filled with cyanide as Joe waited, wondering what they were doing

  • to him.

  • January 7, 1939.

  • A headline in the St. Petersburg Times read, “Happiest man in death cell dies.”

  • The story went on, “The 23-year old youth, described as having a mental age of six, was

  • pronounced dead six and one-fourth minutes after cyanide pellets were dropped into an

  • acid jar beneath the chair to which he was strapped.”

  • The warden said after, “He probably didn't even know he was about to die.”

  • It should have been big news.

  • It should have upset a nation, but then newspaper headlines in bigger print than Joe's had

  • the names Hitler and Mussolini in them.

  • People had other concerns.

  • In the decades to come, though, people still talked about this massive injustice, a crime

  • committed by those supposed to protect us.

  • Finally, in 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued a pardon for Joe, saying there had

  • been, a “tragic conviction based on a false and coerced confessionof a mentally disabled

  • man.

  • He added, “Pardoning Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history.

  • It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

  • Now you need to watch, “Innocent on Death Row, Here's What You Actually Get When You're

  • Released.”

  • Or, have a look at, “Why Prisoner Proven Innocent Can't Be Released.”

A 23-year old man sits in a prison cell with the widest smile painted across his face.

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The Happiest Death Row Prisoner

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/26
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