Joe Arridy, the mentally challenges man executed for a crime he did not commit, was granted a posthumous pardon by Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado on Jan 7, 2011. With the stroke of a pen the compassionate governor righted a wrong exonerating a man who was put to death in the gas chamber at the Canyon City Territorial Prison 72 years ago. Though Little Joe has since been diseased his haunting memory lived in the hearts and souls of those who knew his innocence. The noble efforts of renowned humanitarian Robert Perske and attorney David Martinez were not in vain for Joe was vindicated of a crime he did not have the capacity to understand or commit. Perske and Martinez selflessly achieved the impossible while facing insurmountable odds in obtaining this historic pardon of a dead man. But there was another champion in my eyes who fought for Joe’s justice. He introduced me to the plight of the man/child Joe Arridy. His weapon of choice was the pen and his name is Daniel Sanchez Leonetti, author of the screenplay “Woodpecker Waltz”.
Though I’ve written about Dan and his screenplay Woodpecker Waltz in the past I felt the need to speak with him again since Joe was finally exonerated. Dan was emotionally drawn to this mentally challenged man/child who suffered unfathomable abuses throughout his life. His screenplay was more than a movie about sadness and mistaken identity but rather a journey into the human psyche in an era where prejudices and hatred reigned. Joe was of Syrian decent and mentally challenged making him the perfect target for a career minded prosecutor and a hate filled population that had little regard for the truth.
Unfortunately not much has changed over the years as race and religious differences continue to fuel angry mobs looking for a scapegoat. Opportunistic prosecutors continue to advantageously bolster their careers with little regard for innocence or truth. Sensationalism and strategically leaked evidence convict people in the press tainting public opinion and jury pools before all the facts are known. It is all but impossible to find a truly unbiased jury and the innocent are plunged into the abyss of false convictions. Dan’s screenplay is a wake up call for not what we’ve been or have become but what we still are. But the screenplay also speaks volumes about Dan the writer for it reveals a noble champion of the innocent.
Knowing how deeply Dan felt about the Joe Arridy story I decided ask a few more question in light of this turn of events. Besides it was Dan’s idea to seek out a pardon. According to Dan the idea came to him as he was writing the screenplay. Then one day he made a promise to Joe at his grave site on Woodpecker Hill at the Colorado Territorial Prison that he would get him pardoned. Through the brilliant work of attorney David Martinez and the compassion Governor Bill Ritter felt for this man/child Dan kept his promise to Little Joe. And now the rest is history.
B. When did you first start working on the Joe Arridy story?
D. I first heard about the Joe Arridy case in 1995 when Robert Perske published his book Deadly Innocence. The local Pueblo Chieftain had done a feature story on Perske and the publication of his book. My sister, Connie, brought the newspaper to my house and said, “I think you better read this.” And I did. The image of a man with the mind of a child playing with his toy train on Death Row haunted me. It also set off a creative spark in me. I had to dig deeper into this tragic image.
B. What was your reason or why did you do the screenplay?
D. Immediately, I saw the potential of a screenplay in this tragic story. If Joe Arridy was truly innocent, a movie would have a devastating impact on the audience. I also saw a much deeper motive that I could tackle in this screenplay: the death penalty. The death penalty and abortion are the two biggest issues that try the minds and hearts of humanity. Joe Arridy could make his mark on one of them. Sixteen years later, the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty. I was told they cited the Joe Arridy case; shortly after Joe was pardoned by the Governor of Colorado.
B. How did you come to meet David Martinez?
D. David is a good friend of my cousin Antonio Sanchez. One evening he introduced me to David in Denver, and Antonio mentioned the Joe Arridy screenplay. He was slightly interested, but I think it lingered in his mind for years. Later he represented me in my epic battle with VA Administration for benefits. He did this pro bono for I didn’t have the funds to pay a good lawyer. I invited him to a ceremony that we had to put a tombstone for Joe on top of Woodpecker Hill in Canon City on June 2nd of 2007. David attended the ceremony. I think he was deeply moved by the passion he saw that day on top of Woodpecker Hill. He agreed to look into a posthumous pardon, but warned us that this kind of pardon had never been done before. And so we were going into battle with impossible odds from the very beginning.
B. How did you come to meet Bob Perske?
D. I met Bob when he came to Pueblo for a conference of area District Attorneys. He wanted to champion for the mentally challenged people, and how they are coerced into giving false confessions for crimes they didn’t commit. He wanted to stick his two cents into the conference, and he certainly did. Bob is a man who speaks on top of his principals and he is truly a man of character. He is true to his work, his word and his friends. But I had been in contact with him by telephone before the conference. Immediately after Connie brought me the story and called him in Darien CT. I told him that I wanted to write a screenplay on Joe Arridy and would he read another screenplay I had written to see if I was up to the task. He loved that screenplay and gave me permission to go ahead with Joe Arridy. But our early relationship was on shaky ground. I wasn’t totally convinced that Joe was innocent. Robert mailed me a ton of documents, but most importantly there was the two trial transcripts. When I finished with all the testimony, I saw where Joe was railroaded into Death Row for one of the most sensational murders in Colorado history. The fight was on, and it lasted 16 years.
B. Who else did you meet pertaining to the Joe Arridy story?
D. Most importantly I met Micheline and Max Keller, lawyer-producers from the Keller Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. They had heard about my screenplay, The Woodpecker Waltz, when I won the Third Annual Wordsfromhere Screenwriting Contest based in New York. Micheline called me on the telephone and I was immediately attracted to her warmth and sincerity. She loved the screenplay from the opening page which read: “A perfect soul cannot exist in an imperfect world.” The quote was from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. They optioned the screenplay in 2004 and re-optioned in December of 2006 and again in 2010. The perseverance of these people showed me that they had a real passion to get the movie produced. Before that the screenplay had been optioned by Mark Castaldo of Destiny Pictures a company well-known for movies for TV. The story proved to be too big for both of them and those options lapsed. So the screenplay has been on a long road trip. Where it ends, I do not know.
B. Where did you find all the facts behind the story?
D. Bob send me a ton of newspapers, magazines, letters and of course the two trial transcripts by Fed-X. It was all the research he had gathered during the course of writing his book. Antonio also found some important details of the case by reviewing newspaper archives. He found the compelling story on the burning of Frank Aguilar’s house by Pueblo vigilantes. Aguilar was the real killer who was also executed for the crime in the gas chamber. But Antonio found the sad fact that Aguilar’s young daughter died in the fire, and the grandmother was exiled back to Mexico on a train. Not only did Joe’s family suffer great indignities, but so did Aguilar’s family. The repercussions just kept on going in this sad case of crime and punishment.
B. How do you feel knowing Joe was pardoned?
D. When I was told, I was competing in the state dart tournament in Loveland, Colorado. Most of the people in the tournament were aware of my story and my first novel that was recently published. A woman from Denver came up to me and said, “They pardoned Joe. We saw the story on television.” Instantly, tears came to my eyes and I had to find a quiet corner to reflect on the whole thing. It had been such an epic journey. I didn’t think Governor Bill Ritter would grant the pardon. He was a former, tough-nose Denver District Attorney and was on the other side of the river on crime issues. But later, when I read his elegant testimony for the pardon, I wept for the second time. He really got it. It hit him straight in the heart, and his gracious act made history as the first pardon for an executed man.
B. Is there another story in the works of this caliber you are working on?
D. I believe so. I am working on a rewrite for my screenplay, Inherit the Earth, which is based on the Ludlow Massacre. It also won a NY screenwriting contest, but I want it to be so polished that I won’t have to endure the endless options. Also, I am hard at work on the sequel to my novel, Joe and the UFO, and ironically David Martinez is also a part of this story. He was the lawyer, pro-bono of course, for the poor people in the San Luis Valley and their fight to retain the rights to their sacred lands. And finally, I am working on an epic novel about the West, based on real historical characters, and the triumphs and tragedies of the Cheyenne Nation, who once roamed Colorado as a free people. This will be the greatest reach in my work to date, and will be about 800 pages of manuscript when I am finished.
B. What is your opinion on the death penalty?
D. I struggle in my heart about this issue. I was very careful not to sway for or against the death penalty in my screenplay. I wanted the audience to search their own hearts and walk out of the theatre asking themselves what do I think and feel about the death penalty. When I read about vicious killers, I say stick a needle in them. But when I see people like Joe in prison or a case where DNA exonerates someone who has sat in prison for years, I want to abolish the death penalty. I am caught in the rabbit trap on this issue.
B. What is your opinion on mentally challenged people who are incarcerated at present?
D. There are 3,703 people on Death Row. More than 300 of them have mental retardation and await execution in the United States. Since 1979, 38 have been executed. Here is an instance where I am against the Death Penalty.
B. Do you feel that there are more Joe Arridy’s on death row that is innocent?
D. Yes, there is a great probability. Robert is working on a current case as we speak, about a man who has been incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. They are there, but hopefully Joe Arridy will give their lawyers new hope. David has cleared the path for them to follow.
B. Should there be an automatic DNA test on all rape cases?
D. Yes. Despite the enormous cost of this endeavor, we must always remember that the court system is terribly flawed. Joe Arridy’s attorney was incompetent and helped Joe on his way to the gas chamber. A poor man or woman has no chance under this system. Some French philosopher once said something to this effect: I would rather free a thousand guilty criminals than incarcerate one innocent man.
B. What is your attitude on the issue of career minded prosecutors who seek convictions on every case regardless of merit?
D. They should be incarcerated themselves for talking out of two faces. They took an oath to defend and uphold the laws of the United States, and then they bend them to fit their convictions.
B. What checks and balances would you feel appropriate to avoid another travesty of justice like in Joe’s case?
D. The main thing is for all of us to strive to be better human beings. Judges, lawyers, lawmakers, police, citizens we need to look into our hearts with the deepest compassion for fellow man, and truly make our decisions for the good of mankind. We can be punitive and compassionate at the same time.
It’s like Spike Lee said;
“Just do the right thing”
Your Devil’s Advocate