Further Reading: “Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row”

Further Reading is a new blog feature in which we take a deeper look at topics from stories featured on Longform. It is produced along with Pitt Writers.

Last week, Longform picked a piece by Westword’s Alan Prendergast about the 1939 execution of a mentally disabled man coerced into admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. A year after Colorado issued Joe Arridy its first-ever posthumous pardon, Prendergast explores the circumstances leading to the execution and the fight—70 years later—to clear the young man’s name. Suggestions for further reading about coerced confessions, wrongful convictions, the insanity defense and the death penalty:

Joe Arridy gives away his toy trains before his execution.

“The Clinic”
Marguerite Young • Moderate Fable  • 1944

Activist Robert Perske hadn’t heard of Joe Arridy’s execution until 1992, when a friend sent him an obscure poem on the subject. The verses inspired nearly two decades of investigation and advocacy, eventually resulting in Arridy’s pardon.

In the corridor a toy train pursued
Its tracks past countryside and painted station
Of tinny folk. The doomed man’s eyes were glued
On these, he was the tearless one

Who waited unknowing why the warden wept
And watched the toy train with the prisoner
Who watched the train, or ate, or simply slept.
The warden wrote a sorry letter,

“The man you kill tonight is six years old,
He has no idea why he dies,”
Yet he must die in the room the state has walled
Transparent to its glassy eyes.

“I Did It”
Robert Kolker  • New York Magazine  • Oct 2010

Mentally handicapped or not, why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit? On the practices and circumstances that can lead to false confessions:

“You’re right, this is bullshit,” Sennett said before walking out of the room. “I think you killed this lady, and I’m going to prove it.”

Sterling was trembling now, verging on hysteria. He had been in the small room for close to eight hours. Crough came in again at 2:40 a.m. and started rubbing Sterling’s back. “I was whispering,” Crough said later, “simply that we would not dislike him, that we were here for him, we understood—we felt he should tell the truth to get it off his chest.” Crough’s partner, Thomas Vasile, held Sterling’s other hand, and the two detectives huddled around him for a long time, gently reassuring him. Finally, according to the police report, Sterling blurted out, “I did it … I need help.”

Innocence Lost
Pamela Colloff • Texas Monthly • Oct 2010

In 1992, Anthony Graves was arrested for brutally murdering a family in the middle of night. He had no motive. There was no physical evidence. The only witness recanted. And yet Graves remained behind bars:

“You’re Anthony Charles Graves?” asked the justice of the peace, glancing up from the warrant that she held before her. She was flanked by two police officers.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Anthony, this is going to be your warning of rights,” she said. Her delivery was matter-of-fact: “You’re charged with the offense of capital murder.”

“Who?” he said, dumbfounded. He stared back at her blankly.

“An affidavit charging you for this offense has been filed in court,” she continued. As she read him his Miranda rights, he watched her in disbelief. “At this time, no bond has been set,” she said. “Do you understand what I’ve told you, Anthony?”

Graves held up his hands in protest. “Capital murder?” he said, incredulous. “Me? Wh-wh-who murdered? I mean—”

A man wearing a white Western hat interrupted him. “You’ll have a chance to talk to the officers who are actually working the case,” he said.

“This is a big mistake,” Graves said, his voice rising. “Capital murder?” Dubious, he turned to the police officer who had brought him down to the station. “This is a joke,” he said, breaking into a grin, as if he were suddenly on to the elaborate prank that he seemed certain was being played on him. “Somebody’s messing with me, right?” The officer, who did not smile back, ordered him to have a seat.

Trial By Fire
David Grann • The New Yorker • Sep 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to die for killing his two children, a crime he almost certainly did not commit:

Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham was the “crazed glass” that Vasquez had attributed to the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid accelerant. Yet, in November of 1991, a team of fire investigators had inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, which had been ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant had not been used. Most of these houses were on the outskirts of the blaze, where firefighters had shot streams of water; as the investigators later wrote in a published study, they theorized that the fracturing had been induced by rapid cooling, rather than by sudden heating—thermal shock had caused the glass to contract so quickly that it settled disjointedly. The investigators then tested this hypothesis in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But each time they applied water to the heated glass the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst had seen the same phenomenon when he had blowtorched and cooled glass during his research at Cambridge. In his report, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg’s notion of crazed glass was no more than an “old wives’ tale.”

Joe Arridy says goodbye to his mother before being taken to the gas chamber.

On the Row
Tina Rosenberg • Rolling Stone • October 1995

Where should we draw the line with the death penalty? On a convict too young to vote but old enough to be strapped to a chair:

In the last 15 years, only Iraq and possibly Iran have executed more minors, and only six other countries have executed even one. Some of the very qualities that make juvenile criminals most terrifying—their impulsiveness, a tendency to fall under the sway of others and a need to prove their toughness to the group—raise questions about their suitability for a punishment that the law reserves for a small group of the most morally culpable killers. Minors are thought too immature to sit on a jury, vote, buy beer or watch an X-rated movie, yet they are considered responsible enough to pay for their crimes with their lives.

The case of Joseph Hudgins illustrates all these issues. His rashness, lack of judgment and susceptibility to the domination of others might have brought him to kill 21-year-old police officer Christopher Taylor.

Can Accused Killer Seth Winder Stay Sane Long Enough to Stand Trial?
Brantley Hargrove • Dallas Observer • Jan 2012

The process of trying and punishing the questionably competent hasn’t gotten simpler since Arridy’s time. On murder and mental illness:

It would be more than three years before the “I don’t knows” gave way to a trial, during which the legal system would face a daunting Catch 22: Winder is a paranoid schizophrenic, and without antipsychotic medication he is too insane to be prosecuted. But with medication he becomes someone else entirely, capable even of calm rationality. He would have to be induced into a state of synthetic sanity before he could stand trial for a crime that he allegedly committed while unmedicated.

For now, though, he was just another uncooperative suspect.

"We need your help. Are you going to help us?" Thompson’s index finger jackhammered the photo. "Look at him!"

With his slight build and his short, blond hair, Winder looked hunted, like a boy among men. He looked up at the detectives and murmured, “I don’t remember.”

Of Mice and Men: The Execution of Marvin Wilson
Andrew Cohen • The Atlantic  • Aug 2012

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled against executing the mentally impaired but with no clear consensus on what constitutes impairment, executions of cognitively disabled convicts still take place. Andrew Cohen argues against a recent execution in Texas:

At 6:26 p.m local time last night, an hour or so after the last appeal was denied, Texas executed a mentally retarded black man named Marvin Wilson, a man who could not handle money or navigate a phone book, a man who sucked his thumb and could not always tell the difference between left and right, a man who, as a child, could not match his socks, tie his shoes or button his clothes, a 54-year-old man with an IQ of 61* which, his attorneys were quick to point out, is “below the first percentile of human intelligence.”

-Laura Clark