Death row was a happy place for Joe Arridy. As the 23-year-old mentally retarded man waited to hear whether appeals would spare him execution for a grisly ax murder, he spent his days playing in his small cell. Arridy felt safe in the old Colorado state penitentiary in Cañon City—he had regular meals, a warm bed, and was treated well by prisoners and guards alike. Warden Roy Best, a gruff man later accused of flogging prisoners, cared for Arridy like a son and regularly brought him gifts. Arridy was known for his toy train, which he’d wind up and send down the cellblock. When it would crash, another prisoner would wind it up and send it back to him.

When Father Albert Schaller, the prison chaplain, entered Arridy’s cell on January 6, 1939, he had a bowl of ice cream for the inmate. Schaller began to slowly read Arridy last rites, two words at a time, so he could repeat the sacrament. Arridy crossed himself and turned back to his train until Best entered and read the death warrant.

“Do you understand, Joe?” said Best.

“They are killing me,” Arridy said vacantly.

Best, Schaller, and a 50-person entourage escorted Arridy to his death, and on the way he gave his train to a fellow inmate. Inside the execution chamber, Arridy sat down in the chair in the center of the room; the prison guards strapped him down and blindfolded him. Arridy’s characteristic grin slipped off his face. Schaller and Best said good-bye. After they left, the steel door clanged behind them. The airtight chamber filled first with silence, then with the hiss of hydrogen cyanide.

Members of the Drain family, whose 15-year-old daughter, Dorothy, had been raped and slain with a hatchet in Pueblo during the summer of 1936, didn’t witness the execution. But Arridy’s death, which had been delayed by appeals, marked the end of the case; the other convicted murderer, a man named Frank Aguilar, had been executed two years earlier.

Back in the chamber, Arridy slowly asphyxiated from the colorless hydrogen cyanide gas. Eye for an eye, the state of Colorado had killed Joe Arridy. Tragically, it was for a crime he likely didn’t commit.

On a crisp, clear day in May, Daniel Leonetti stands in front of the Cañon City gas chamber. He adjusts his black Army baseball cap, shielding his eyes from the sun. The steel chamber now sits outside the Museum of Colorado Prisons, a morbid crime-and-punishment attraction only a few hundred yards from the still-working prison today called Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, which Joe Arridy thought of as a home. Leonetti inhales, noting the smell of the deadly chemicals that still linger in the chamber.

“It was wrong,” says Leonetti. “What they did to Joe was plain wrong.”

Leonetti, a former reporter for the Trinidad Chronicle-News, is the author of “The Woodpecker Waltz,” a movie script that was first optioned for development in 2004 by the Keller Entertainment Group. KEG is seeking funding to produce the movie. The screenplay follows the story of Gail Ireland, a tenacious Denver attorney—and later Colorado attorney general—who tried every legal and moral maneuver he could to save Arridy’s life before ultimately failing.

Though Ireland has been dead for two decades, Arridy’s supporters continue to grow. In 1995, Robert Perske, a Denver native and an advocate for mentally retarded people accused of crimes, published Deadly Innocence?, a book that made the case for Arridy’s innocence and inspired Leonetti’s script. More recently, Denver attorney David Martinez has been gathering the research and paperwork to make a formal request for Governor Bill Ritter to issue a posthumous pardon for Arridy.

“I’ve worked on a lot of miscarriage of justice cases,” says Perske, “and the trial, conviction, and execution of Joe Arridy is the worst miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen. Period.”

The son of Syrian immigrants, Joe Arridy had spent most of his life at the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. Arridy, a slight 5 feet 4 inches, was often beaten by his peers. In August 1936, he left the institution and headed to the rail yard. He hopped a boxcar to Pueblo, but then left within a few hours.

Around the time Arridy whisked in and out of town, Pueblo was in a frenzy. Fifteen-year-old Dorothy Drain had been raped and killed in the night while her parents were out, and her younger sister, Barbara, was severely beaten. The crime was eerily similar to the earlier slaying of an elderly woman, and the town was outraged. The Pueblo Chieftain claimed the incidents were the region’s worst modern crimes and urged police to quickly resolve the murders.

Arridy was picked up roaming the Union Pacific rail yard in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and brought before Cheyenne sheriff George Carroll. When Carroll learned that Arridy was from Pueblo, his interest was piqued. He began pressuring Arridy, who quickly—and helpfully—confessed to the Drain murder. When Carroll called up Arthur Grady, the Pueblo police chief, and told him he had found the killer, Grady was surprised. He had already arrested a Mexican man named Frank Aguilar who had worked for Drain’s father. Pueblo police found a hatchet at Aguilar’s home.

Aguilar denied knowing Arridy. After several days of pressure, however, he broke down and made a lengthy confession that placed Arridy at the scene, committing a sexual assault. Aguilar signed the transcript with an “X.” Scribbled in the margins was “Arrdy,” although Joe didn’t answer a single question in the transcript. Aguilar was convicted and was executed in 1937.

Arridy’s trial dragged on. His lawyer conceded the alleged facts and argued that Arridy was not guilty by reason of insanity. The strategy failed: Although three state psychiatrists testified that Arridy was insane, the jury sided with sheriff Carroll and other police officers. Despite any hard evidence or a transcript of a confession, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Gail Ireland, the Denver attorney, took over the Arridy case. He won more than a half-dozen stays of execution before reaching the Colorado Supreme Court, where he petitioned for a hearing on Arridy’s sanity. In a letter to a friend, Ireland wrote that if the execution went ahead the state would be “committing a murder itself.”

“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,” he wrote. The state Supreme Court denied the petition by a single vote.

Daniel Leonetti walks through the piles of crumbled stone at Greenwood Cemetery in Cañon City. It’s just hours after he visited the prisons museum, and he’s looking for Woodpecker Hill, where inmates who died in prison—including those executed—were buried. Leonetti scratches his head and squints along a ridge, finally spotting his friend Craig Severa zigzagging upslope through dry, yellow prairie grass. Both Leonetti and Severa, an advocate for the Arc of the Pikes Peak Region (a support organization for people with developmental disabilities), are hoping to clear Arridy’s name.

A reversal of justice would be a coup, considering that only a handful of posthumous pardons have been granted in death penalty cases across the country. “It’s not unheard of,” says Michael Radelet, chair of the University of Colorado sociology department and a death penalty expert. But, he adds, “it takes some political maneuvering.”

Radelet points to a number of flaws in the conviction: Arridy didn’t have access to a lawyer and seems to have been pushed into a confession by Sheriff Carroll. Arridy first claimed a club was used in the murder, but changed his story to an ax after authorities found one in Frank Aguilar’s home. When Carroll got Aguilar’s name, Arridy suddenly identified a coconspirator named “Frank.”

“It’s almost as if the confession was spoon-fed,” says Leonetti, noting that mentally retarded people are easily suggestible.

David Martinez, the lawyer preparing the petition for the posthumous pardon, declined to comment because the pardon isn’t finished. And Governor Bill Ritter, the man who would need to approve it, also declined to comment until the pardon arrives on his desk. The future of Arridy’s reputation remains unclear, but his advocates hope that this last appeal, nearly 70 years after his execution, may finally bring Arridy his long-awaited justice.

Back on Woodpecker Hill, Leonetti and Severa weave through weeds and the small, rusty tin signs that mark the graves of prisoners. Some of the signs, lacking even names and dates, mark the bodies of prisoners long forgotten. When they find Arridy’s grave, though, it is nearly pristine. The two-foot-tall headstone, carved with his name, birth, and death dates, and a picture of Joe and his toy train, was placed here only last year. Seven decades after his death, Joe Arridy still has friends on the case.

Michael de Yoanna is a Denver-based writer. E-mail him at