Unjustified: The Tragic Execution of Joe Arridy

Joe Arridy's IQ was 46, meaning he had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old. When he was arrested for the rape and murder of 15 year old Dorothy Drain in 1936, he didn't understand what was being asked in his interrogation. There were so many things...

Joe Arridy's IQ was 46, meaning he had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old. When he was arrested for the rape and murder of 15 year old Dorothy Drain in 1936, he didn't understand what was being asked in his interrogation. There were so many things indicating Joe's innocence, yet he was still convicted of murder and sentenced to death. This is Joe's story, and it begs the question, should those with diminished mental capacity be eligible for the death penalty?

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Welcome back to Kudzu Killers: Homicide and Sweet Tea. We’re happy to be here with y’all for our 73rd episode. We’ve passed 15,000 downloads and trucking on toward 20,000. Lark, did you ever think we’d get this far?

I wasn’t sure at first, but we seem to have a few fans out there, and we’re so happy to work to bring you these stories each week. We hope you stick around for the next 73 episodes.

Today I’m going to do something a little different than usual. Normally we talk about true crimes and the criminals who commit them. Today, we’re going to talk about a true crime, but along with the initial crime of the rape and murder of a fifteen year old girl back in 1936, it’s also the crime of wrongful conviction a mentally disabled man and his subsequent execution for crimes he didn’t commit.

Joe Arridy was the son of Syrian immigrants, Henry and Mary Arridy. The Arridys were first cousins, and they had several children who weren’t quite right, most of whom died very young. Joe had one surviving brother, George, who was mentally impaired, but not to the extent of Joe. In one article it said he had a teenage sister, but I’m not sure if she was disabled or not. Poor Joe had an IQ of 46, the equivalent of a 6-year-old. After one year of elementary school, the principle told them not to bother sending him back, because he was not capable of learning. Joe hadn’t spoken a word until he was 5, and even into adulthood he couldn’t speak or understand more than a couple or three words strung together.

At the age of 10, he was admitted to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, Colorado, now called the Grand Junction Regional Center. This poor boy didn’t know his colors, couldn’t tell a rock from an egg, and couldn’t repeat a sequence of four numbers. His father appeared to be normal, but his mother was mentally deficient. His father, Henry, felt bad for sending him to the school, and after 10 months, he took him back home. But Henry lost his job, and was soon in trouble for bootlegging.

The boy came to the attention of a probation officer, I don’t know if it was Henry’s probation officer or what, that wasn’t clear. He’d found him basically being forced to do sexual things with other boys, and allowing himself to be sexually molested. He was deemed a pervert, even though he didn’t really understand what was going on, and the probation officer just felt so bad for him that he demanded he be readmitted to the home. The officer had no way of knowing, but Joe was mistreated by the other kids there. He would agree to anything, so when they did something wrong, like steal cigarettes or other items, they’d just accuse him of doing it and he’d say yes because he really had no clue what he was confessing to, or even that he was confessing to anything. The parents tried to get him back several times, but the superintendent of the school advised against it, saying his perverse habits meant it would be better for him to stay there. Basically, Joe was gay. He had no interest in the girls at the home, but did have relations with other boys there.

At the age of 21, I guess tired of being mistreated, he ran away from the state home. He came back and ran away a couple more times, but finally he met up with three others from the home and they hopped a train heading east to Pueblo. Then Joe hopped a train alone and ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he was arrested for vagrancy by Sheriff George Carroll. This was August 26, 1936.

On the night of August 14, 1936, nearly two weeks earlier, 15-year-old Dorothy and 12-year-old Barbara Drain were sleeping peacefully in their beds, their parents away for the evening, when someone broke into their home, attacked them both with a hatchet, and raped and murdered Dorothy. Actually, he murdered and then raped her body. Barbara survived the attack.

Oddly enough, just a couple of weeks before, two other women were attacked in their sleep, and one died. Then the night before the murders, another pair of women reported they’d been grabbed from behind by a Mexican-looking man.

Of course, the police were under a lot of pressure to find this man before he attacked again. Joe had been arrested for vagrancy when he was found wandering around the train yards. He was of Syrian descent, he was darker-skinned, dark hair and eyes. He could be mistaken for Mexican…maybe.

When Sheriff George Carroll, who knew there was a murder investigation going on in Pueblo decided Joe fit the bill and could pass for Mexican, he decided to interrogate him about the murders. Now, remember, Joe was what they termed back then an imbecile. He was special needs, an IQ of 46, that of a six-year-old. He barely knew how to string two words into a sentence, did not function well on his own, and was very, very susceptible to suggestion. Did you steal those cigarettes, Joe? Yes, I did.

You see where this is going, right?

We’re talking about the wrongful conviction and execution of Joe Arridy in 1939.

So the sheriff got Joe into an interrogation room. Alone. He didn’t take any notes. He was sure he had his guy. Who knows, maybe the sheriff saw that Joe was so impaired he could get him to say anything with enough pressure. Just like a child, I can imagine that Joe wanted to please people and would say whatever he thought would make them like him. So, when the sheriff asked him if he hurt the girls, he most likely said yes, not understanding what he was agreeing to. When the sheriff asked him how, he said a club. When the sheriff said you mean an axe, he agreed, yes, and axe. I’m just guessing how the interrogation went down since the sheriff took no notes. As far as anyone really knows, he never said a thing. Remember, he couldn’t even make sentences.

So when we come back after a word from our sponsors, we’ll talk more about the interrogation and the trial, and what happened to poor Joe Arridy. Be right back.



Thanks for coming back. We’re talking about the wrongful conviction of Joe Arriday.

Now the sheriff of Cheyenne, George Carroll, hauled his suspect, Joe, back to Pueblo.

In the meantime, the police in Pueblo had already arrested a man named Frank Aguilar for the crimes. Aguilar had confessed to the murders, they found in his home an axe head that had markings which matched the wounds on Dorothy’s body. He had worked for the girls’ father and had been fired, and this was his revenge.

But the sheriff would have none of that. He was convinced Joe took part in the rapes and murders. Why, he knew what the house looked like on the inside, and he said he’d been with a friend named Frank when the murders happened. But, thing is, when they took him to meet Frank at the jail, while Joe said, yah, that’s Frank, Frank said, “I’ve never seen this guy in my life.” Joe wasn’t with him when he committed the murders, he didn’t even know him and had never seen him before.

But that didn’t sway the sheriff, the police or prosecutors. They had his confession. Well, it wasn’t exactly written down, and there weren’t any witnesses to it, but yeah, he’d confessed alright. He must have helped, despite what Frank Aguilar said.

So, there was a trial for Joe. Of course he said all the things he thought they wanted him to say. At one point, when prosecutors were questioning the sheriff, it was almost like they wanted the jurors to see this might be a coerced confession. They asked the sheriff, “You had to, what we commonly say, pry everything out of him?”

I mean, the questions Sheriff Carroll asked Joe were things like, whether he liked girls. When he said yes, the sheriff followed up with something like, “If you like girls so well, then why do you hurt them?”

Here are the facts about the case:

  • Frank Aguilar said he’d never seen Joe before
  • Aguilar confessed to the killings, said they were retaliation for being fired by the girls’ father
  • Barbara testified she was attacked by Aguilar, she testified Joe wasn’t there
  • The axe head was found in Aguilar’s home
  • Joe had a friend from the home he’d been riding the trains with who’d testified that they were not even in Pueblo when the murders happened, and didn’t return there until two days after the murders
  • Nothing connected Joe to the murder, other than his so-called confession, which wasn’t written down by the sheriff, and which was most likely coerced from him with vague questions and insinuated answers

Frank Aguilar was convicted of the murder of Barbara Drain and was executed on August 17, 1937.

Yet the jury still convicted Joe Arridy of the murder, despite there being no written confession, despite the guilty party confessing and saying he didn’t even know Joe and he wasn’t there that night, even though Joe had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old and could barely speak, let alone understand what was really going on. He was oblivious, completely. He was sentenced to death.

So Joe was also sent to death row. They called him the happiest prisoner on death row. Of course he was happy. He had a place to sleep, he had food, he was given a toy train by the warden, his favorite thing in the world. He’d play with them all day long, for hours. He had a wind-up train he’d send down the hallway on death row, the inmates would reach out to crash them, which made Joe laugh, then they’d send them back his way so he could do it all over again. Of course Joe was happy. He’d made friends, he got to play all day, he was taken care of, so to speak.

Of course, Joe’s case was appealed. His wrongful conviction was taken all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. Joe’s lawyer, Gail Ireland, who later became Colorado Attorney General, cited an obviously coerced confession, with the eyewitness testimony stating he wasn’t at the crime scene, and although he was able to get 9 stays of execution for Joe, he was never able to convince the courts of Joe’s innocence.

So, on January 9, 1939, Joe was executed. He was only 23 years old. His mother, aunt, cousin and sister, and this was the only reference to a sister I found, came to visit him the night before an execution, and it was obvious to everyone there, Joe had no clue what was going on, why his mother was crying, he just took a break from playing with his trains, then went right back to playing when they left.

When he was asked what he wanted for his last meal, Joe didn’t really understand what that meant. He didn’t answer. SO they asked him what his favorite thing to eat was, and he said ice cream, so that’s what he got. When a last-minute appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court was denied in a 4-3 vote, the warden, Roy Best, and the prison Chaplain, Father Albert Shaller, went to see Joe. The priest told him he’d have to give up his train, but he’d be trading it for a golden harp. Joe was okay with that, so when they let him out of his cell, he gave away all his prized possessions.

He gave the train to a fellow prisoner, a tin plate to the warden, a toy car to the warden’s nephew, and together they walked up the hill to the gas chamber, where cyanide pellets were dropped into sulfuric acid, and Joe gasped until he finally died.

Now, you’re asking yourself, why did Kim tell me this horrible story about a wrongful execution? Well, I’ll tell you why. We’ve talked about the death penalty before, and while I’m not firmly against it, as I’ve said I don’t think I could actually sentence someone to that unless I had undeniable evidence or video of them committing the act.

More and more we’re hearing about people who are mentally disabled receiving death penalties. Now, while I can’t speak to their guilt or innocence, in my heart I believe if they cannot understand what they’re being asked, if they have the mental capacity of a child like Joe, they should not be given the death penalty anymore than a child should. His “confession” was clearly, looking back, coerced by the sheriff in a zealous move to help solve a crime. Who knows if it was for nefarious reasons, such as he wanted to appear to be a great lawman and solve this case for the Pueblo, Colorado PD, if he didn’t like immigrants like Joe’s parents, or if he really, truly believed Joe had done this. Either way, it must have been clear to him as he was having to, as the prosecutor said, drag them confession out of Joe, that Joe didn’t understand what was happening, didn’t understand the questions he was asking. I don’t want to vilify the guy, he’s not around to defend himself now, but he had to have known Joe wasn’t right.

Joe, like a kid, told the adult what he thought he wanted to hear, happily, because he wanted to please the adult in the conversation. He was not at the crime scene, the victim said he wasn’t there, the murderer said he wasn’t there, there was no written confession, or even notes from the interrogation. It was all the sheriff’s word, and Joe’s answers to questions he most likely didn’t even understand that convicted him, and executed an innocent man.

If the person doesn’t understand, if their IQ is that of a child like Joe’s, then my feeling is they should not be given the death penalty.

Joe was finally given a full pardon by the governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, in 2011, more than 70 years after his wrongful death. His murder, really.

So, how do you all feel about this? You can leave us a comment on our website, kudzukillers.com, or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

So, Lark, your feelings?

This happened a lot back then, and I’m sure it probably still happens now. Currently 19 states and the federal government do not allow the death penalty for mentally disabled folks. Some have specific IQ levels such as 65, which is the equivalent of a third grader or 9 year old. Others are less spelled out, but basically if psychological exams show they’re mentally deficient, they are exempt from the death penalty.