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New Mexico governor weighs pardon for Billy the Kid

Bill Richardson must decide whether to make good on a promise one of his predecessors made to the outlaw but did not keep.

December 18, 2010|By Michael Haederle

Reporting from Albuquerque — Nearly 130 years after the death of Henry McCarty, alias William Bonney, but better known as Billy the Kid, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will take some of the final hours of his administration to decide whether to pardon the baby-faced gunslinger.

Richardson will review evidence that in 1881, one of his predecessors promised to pardon Bonney for killing a sheriff in return for his testimony in a murder case. The record suggests that New Mexico territorial Gov. Lew Wallace later reneged on that promise.

Richardson has promised a decision by Dec. 31, his final day in office.

Richardson, who is in North Korea for talks aimed at defusing recent tensions after that country's recent artillery barrage on a South Korean island, has also solicited comment from citizens to help him make a decision, according to spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia.

"This is something the governor was saying he would consider pretty much since he's been in office," she said.

He has made no commitment about whether he will grant the pardon.

Richardson is preparing to turn over the reins of state government to Republican Susana Martinez, along with a roughly $300-million budget deficit and near-record unemployment.

Albuquerque lawyer Randi McGinn, who filed the pardon petition with Richardson's office on Tuesday, said she volunteered to research the case based on her belief that an injustice had been committed.

"Here's the ironic thing," McGinn said. "The outlaw kept his promise. The governor didn't."

Her pardon application recites Bonney's history, starting with an 1874 stint working in a Silver City, N.M., hotel "for a landlord who said he was the only employee who never stole anything."

By 1877, Bonney was a cowboy on Englishman John Tunstall's Rio Feliz Ranch in Lincoln County. Tunstall, embroiled in a dispute with rival businessmen, was killed on Feb. 18, 1878, by a posse dispatched by Sheriff William Brady.

Brady was ambushed and killed six weeks later on the streets of Lincoln, then the county seat, while the Regulators, a group of Tunstall allies that included Bonney, were in town to testify before a grand jury.

McGinn, who spent six months reviewing records and reading books about the outlaw, noted in her petition that Bonney had written to Wallace (the celebrated author of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ") offering to testify about a murder he had witnessed in return for a pardon in the sheriff's slaying.

"I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know," the governor wrote back. Bonney testified before the grand jury as agreed, but Wallace declined to issue the pardon.

Bonney wrote several letters reminding Wallace of his promise, but the governor instead announced a reward for his arrest in the Brady killing, for which he was tried and convicted of murder.

Bonney was being held at the Lincoln County courthouse awaiting execution by hanging when he killed two deputies and escaped on April 28, 1881. Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down to a ranch house near Ft. Sumner, N.M., and shot him dead on the night of July 13. He was about 21 years old.

Wallace's commitment should be upheld as a matter of policy, in McGinn's view.

"A promise is a promise and should be enforced," she wrote. "It is particularly important to enforce promises and deals made by government officials, law enforcement officers or the governor of a state made in exchange for a citizen risking his life to testify against a criminal who committed murder."

Pat Garrett's grandchildren, some of whom still live in the state, have gone on record opposing the pardon. Ray-Garcia said the governor had met with them to assure them that their ancestor's legacy was not in dispute.

Haederle writes for The Times.

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