Billy the Kid is no Jim Morrison: Gov. Bill Richardson refuses to pardon that other mythic outlaw

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he will not pardon Billy the Kid, who killed between nine and 20 people. The decision comes shortly after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist successfully pushed for a pardon for the late Jim Morrison, one of rock's bad boys. The idea of pardoning the dead is a relatively recent one.

December 31, 2010|By Michael Muskal | Los Angeles Times

Democrats are often accused of being soft on crime, while Republicans usually see themselves as the opposite. But when it comes to dealing with pardons for dead figues, all bets are off.

On his last day in office Friday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, announced that he will not pardon the mythic western outlaw, Billy the Kid. Earlier this month, outgoing Republican Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida successfully pushed for a pardon for the late Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors rock group.

The power to pardon has been an executive prerogative for centuries and has even been tied to the religious idea of freely given grace. There has been no shortage of controversies about pardons as well, perhaps the most famous political one being Gerald R. Ford’s pardon of his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon. But the idea of pardoning a dead person is relatively recent.

According to legend, William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, killed more than 20 men, though historians say the real number was closer to nine. Richardson had to decide if Gov. Lew Wallace promised to pardon Bonney for killing a sheriff about 130 years ago in order to get the outlaw to testify before a grand jury on another murder. Bonney testified but the pardon never came through.

Speaking on “Good Morning America,” Richardson cited the “lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his promise” for rejecting the pardon, which has become an international issue of sorts.

“It was a very close call,” Richardson said. “The romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it.”

Bonney was eventually shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, a few months after escaping from jail.

Richardson considered the pardon after a local attorney submitted a petition. The governor’s office has received more than 800 e-mails in a survey, with more than 400 favoring granting a pardon and 379 opposed.

All the furor over the pardon has also helped the state, Richardson noted. “It's good for tourism,” he said. “It's gotten great publicity for the state.”

If Richardson had to weigh the romanticism of the Old West in his decision, Crist had to weigh the romance of one of the most noted poet-musicians of the psychedelic rock era.

Morrison was convicted of two misdemeanors in connection with allegedly exposing himself in 1969 and simulating a sex act in one of the more notorious incidents of the wild and wooly ‘60s. His action prompted decency protests before he was convicted.

Earlier this month, the Florida Clemency Board granted the pardon at Crist’s behest. The governor argued that evidence was too insubstantial and a pardon was the right thing to do.

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