Outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has a tough decision to make before his term ends Friday night. Should he or shouldn't he pardon a notorious murderer? The fact that the murder happened in 1878 doesn't make the decision any easier. That's when Billy the Kid and a few others ambushed and gunned down Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady.
The Kid was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to hang for Brady's murder. While awaiting execution in a makeshift jail in the Lincoln County Courthouse, he killed the two Sheriff's deputies guarding him and escaped. The new Sheriff, Pat Garrett, caught up with him a few months later and shot him dead.
That much is undisputed fact. The rest gets murkier. Even Billy the Kid's real name is in dispute. Many historians believe it was William Henry Bonney. Others say it was Henry McCarty and still others have different theories.
Also in dispute is whether the Territorial Governor, Gen. Lew Wallace, had at some point promised to pardon the Kid for Brady's murder in return for testifying in a separate murder trial. Albuquerque Attorney Randi McGinn believes the pardon promise was indeed made. She petitioned Richardson for the Kid's pardon.
Descendants of Wallace, Garrett and some of the Kid's victims are outraged that the issue is even being considered. They not only deny that Wallace made any promise of a pardon, but say the Kid was nothing but a cop killing punk whose true thug nature has become submerged over the years by romanticized, fictionalized versions of history in books, TV shows and movies.
Governor Richardson says, "I'm not looking at a blanket pardon and he did kill those two police officers as he was escaping from the Lincoln County Jail."
He adds that he, "wants to see some concrete evidence...on whether this pardon request and the pardon promise, potentially a promise by Governor Lew Wallace, was valid and documented."
Republican Governor-elect Susana Martinez says all this time and effort devoted to a 19th Century outlaw is a waste of time in light of the serious issues facing New Mexicans today. But an online petition asking for public comment on the issue has received e-mails from around the world, with 53% of the comments running favor of pardoning Billy the Kid.
Richardson deflects criticism of the debate, "I just want to make the right decision, but you know what? This is fun, this is not, we're not talking about war, we're not talking about airplane delays everywhere, and storms. This is American history, this is New Mexico history."
Richardson has until midnight Friday to decide if he will make history by changing history. Either way, the debate over what really happened 13 decades ago will surely continue for many more years to come.