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No pardon for Billy the Kid

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says, 'The romanticism appealed to me … but the facts and the evidence did not support it.'

December 31, 2010|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Billy the Kid was promised a pardon in exchange for testifying in an 1879 slaying. He didn't get a pardon then and, after deliberations by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, won't get one now.
Billy the Kid was promised a pardon in exchange for testifying in an 1879… (Lincoln County Heritage…)

Reporting from Phoenix — Despite a flurry of publicity and public agonizing, 19th century outlaw Billy the Kid won't be pardoned, outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson announced Friday.

The Democratic governor had considered pardoning the Kid since at least 2003, but focused on the issue as his term wound down. Friday was the last day he could act.

"It was a very close call," Richardson told "Good Morning America." "The romanticism appealed to me, to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it, and I've got to be responsible, especially when a governor is issuing a pardon."

Richardson considered pardoning the Kid for one killing, not for any of his other killings or crimes. The governor reviewed historical evidence and a pardon petition submitted by Albuquerque lawyer Randi McGinn, but concluded the facts were ambiguous.

McGinn's petition said territorial governor Lew Wallace had promised the Kid a pardon if he testified about a killing he'd witnessed. The Kid, also known as William Bonney and Henry McCarty, offered to testify in return for a pardon in the 1878 slaying of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady.

Wallace responded: "I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."

Bonney testified but received no pardon. Instead, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. In 1881, he broke out of jail, killing two deputies as he fled. Lawman Pat Garrett tracked him down and killed him months later.

The Kid's subsequent conduct factored into his decision, Richardson said Friday.

"What I think maybe tipped the scales with me is that Billy went ahead after not getting this pardon and killed two deputies," he said. He added that "a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity" also contributed to his decision.

Descendants of Wallace and Garrett had campaigned against the pardon, saying it would have smeared their ancestors' names.

William N. Wallace, great-grandson of the then-governor, expressed relief Friday.

"I was gratified to learn that Gov. Richardson had given up his effort to pardon Billy the Kid," Wallace said. "It seems to me he thus followed a rational, correct route, although I am still mystified as to why he commenced this nonsense."

But McGinn found victory in the debate. "We won the battle, which was proving the broken promise by Gov. Wallace," she said. "But we lost the war."

Either way, McGinn has no regrets. "It's great being Billy the Kid's lawyer."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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