Published December 31, 2010
Billy the Kid is still an outlaw.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced Friday he would not grant a posthumous pardon to the infamous Old West bad guy, after drawing international attention by entertaining a petition on Billy the Kid's behalf during his final days in office. Richardson's term ends at midnight.
The pardon request had centered on whether Billy the Kid, who was shot to death in 1881 after escaping jail where he awaited hanging in the killing of a sheriff, had been promised a pardon from New Mexico's territorial governor, Lew Wallace, in return for testimony in killings he had witnessed. The proposed pardon covered the 1878 killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady.
But the descendants of Wallace and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who fatally shot the fugitive in 1881, had expressed outrage over the proposal.
Granddaughter Pauline Garrett Tillinghast told Fox News minutes before the decision was announced Friday that a pardon would tarnish her grandfather's legacy. Though the pardon might have been narrowly tailored, she expressed concern that the public perception would be that he was "pardoned for everything."
"It's ridiculous to pardon a murderer," she said. "Hollywood has turned him into some sort of a folk hero."
Pat Garrett's grandson J.P. Garrett and Wallace's great-grandson William Wallace also publicly opposed the proposal after Richardson set up a website in mid-December to hear from the public.
Richardson said Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he decided against a pardon "because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his promise."
According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. The New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine.
The historical record on the pardon is ambiguous, and Richardson staff members told him in August there are no written documents "pertaining in any way" to a pardon in the papers of the territorial governor, who served in office from 1878 to 1881.
The governor's website was established after Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn submitted a formal petition for a pardon.
Richardson's office received 809 e-mails and letters in the survey that ended Sunday, with 430 favoring a pardon and 379 opposed. Comments came from all over the world.
McGinn argued that Lew Wallace promised to pardon the Kid, also known as William Bonney or Henry McCarty.
She said the Kid kept his end of the bargain, but the territorial governor did not.
The Kid was a ranch hand and gunslinger in the bloody Lincoln County War, a feud between factions vying to dominate the dry goods business and cattle trading in southern New Mexico.
Richardson has said the Kid is part of New Mexico history and he's been interested in the case for years. He's also pointed to the "good publicity" the state received over the pardon.
J.P. Garrett of Albuquerque said there's no proof Gov. Wallace offered a pardon -- and may have tricked the Kid into testifying.
"The big picture is that Wallace obviously had no intent to pardon Billy -- even telling a reporter that fact in an interview on April 28, 1881," he wrote. "So there was no 'pardon promise' that Wallace broke. But I do think there was a pardon 'trick,' in that Wallace led Billy on to get his testimony."
He also said that when the Kid was awaiting trial in Brady's killing, "he wrote four letters for aid, but never used the word 'pardon."'
William Wallace of Westport, Conn., said his ancestor never promised a pardon and that pardoning the Kid "would declare Lew Wallace to have been a dishonorable liar."
Billy the Kid killed two deputies while escaping jail, but McGinn's request did not cover those deaths.
The Kid wrote Wallace in 1879, volunteering to testify if Wallace would annul pending charges against him, including a murder indictment in Brady's death.
A tantalizing part of the question is a clandestine meeting Wallace had with the Kid in Lincoln in March 1879. The Kid's letters leave no doubt he wanted Wallace to at least grant him immunity from prosecution.
Wallace, in arranging the meeting, responded: "I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."
"It seems to me that when the government makes a deal with you, it should keep its promise," McGinn said after filing the request.
But when the Las Vegas, N.M., Gazette asked Wallace shortly before he left office about prospects he would spare the Kid's life, Wallace replied: "I can't see how a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me."
J.P. Garrett also contended Richardson should have designated an independent, impartial historian, and noted that Richardson appointed McGinn's husband to the state Supreme Court.
McGinn has "meager qualifications" and a possible conflict of interest, William Wallace said.
McGinn insisted her only tie to the administration was in volunteering to look into the issue, knowing Richardson's interest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.