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Colorado governor pardons man executed for murder in 1939

DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado’s outgoing governor issued a posthumous pardon on Friday to a mentally disabled man executed in 1939 for the murder of a 15-year-old girl, a crime the condemned man’s supporters have long said he never committed.

In pardoning Joe Arridy, Governor Bill Ritter called the case a “tragic conviction (based) on a false and coerced confession.”

“In addition, it would be unconstitutional today to impose the death penalty on anyone as intellectually disabled as Arridy,” Ritter, the former district attorney for Denver, said in a written statement.

Arridy confessed to the 1936 murder of Dorothy Drain in the southern Colorado city of Pueblo. The girl and her 12-year-old sister, Barbara, were bludgeoned with a hatchet while they slept.

Dorothy Drains was also raped and died from her wounds. Her sister survived the attack.

In his pardon, Ritter said Arridy was arrested in Cheyenne, Wyoming and was browbeaten into confessing to the murder.

He was executed in Colorado’s gas chamber on January 6, 1939. A second defendant who worked for the girls’ father, Frank Aguilar, later confessed to the crime and told police he never met Arridy.

Nevertheless, both men were convicted of the murder. Aguilar was executed in 1937.

Arridy was born in 1915 to non-English speaking Syrian immigrants. He was in and out of institutions for “mental defectives” throughout his childhood and was deemed an “imbecile” with an I.Q. of 46 by mental health workers.

In recent years, Arridy became a cause celebre, with numerous news articles, a book and a screenplay written about the case. Mental health professionals and defense attorneys have pushed for his pardon for years.

While in Colorado’s penitentiary, Arridy played with toy trains and trucks and was unable to comprehend the gravity of the charges against him.

For his last three meals on death row he ordered ice cream, and went into the gas chamber on his execution date with his ever-present childlike grin.

Ritter, who leaves office next week, said he didn’t apply 2011 standards in making his decision.

“Numerous people at the time found it unconscionable that Mr. Arridy was sentenced to death,” Ritter said. “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.”

Editing by Dan Whitcomb