Published December 31, 2010
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The rehabilitation of Billy the Kid lies dead in the dust.
In one of his last official acts — or non-acts — before leaving office, New Mexico's governor refused to pardon the Old West outlaw Friday for one of the many murders he committed before he was gunned down in 1881.
Gov. Bill Richardson cited ambiguity surrounding the pledge of a pardon 130 years ago as the reason.
"I felt I could not rewrite history," Richardson told The Associated Press, hours after announcing his decision on ABC's "Good Morning America" on his last day in office.
The prospect of a pardon for the notorious frontier figure drew international attention to New Mexico, centering on whether New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace promised Billy the Kid a pardon in return for testifying about killings he witnessed.
Richardson concluded Wallace did make a deal, "but it's uncertain why he did not keep his promise," said the former U.N. ambassador and Democratic presidential candidate.
He said he could not pardon Billy the Kid given that ambiguity and the fact he killed two deputies when he escaped in April 1881 from the Lincoln County jail, where he was awaiting hanging for the 1878 killing of Sheriff William Brady.
A pardon document was even drafted, "but in the end, I didn't use it," said Richardson, adding that he didn't decide until Thursday night.
The proposed pardon covered only the killing of Brady, and not the deaths of the deputies or any other killings. According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 people, although the New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine.
He was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881.
Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn, who petitioned for a pardon after studying the issue, said she won the battle in proving there was a promise but lost the war over the pardon. She said, however, she didn't regret "one iota being Billy the Kid's lawyer."
Garrett's grandson, J.P. Garrett, of Albuquerque, sent an e-mail to The Associated Press: "Yea!!! No pardon! Looks like it will be a great new year!!!!"
Wallace's great-grandson, William Wallace, of Westport, Conn., said Richardson "followed the correct, rational track in forgoing a pardon for a convicted murderer."
Both men had expressed outrage Richardson would even consider a pardon, arguing there was no proof one was ever offered.
The historical record is unclear, Richardson said. His staff 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 from 1878 to 1881.
Richardson's successor, Gov. Susana Martinez, who takes office Saturday, has said she won't even consider a pardon because state issues were more pressing.
"There's an awful lot of work to be taken care of for us to be wasting so much time on such a consideration," the Republican said Tuesday.
Richardson's office set up a website in mid-December for public comments following McGinn's petition. The survey that ended Sunday brought in 809 e-mails and letters from all over the world — 430 favoring a pardon and 379 opposed.
McGinn argued Lew Wallace promised to pardon the Kid, also known as William Bonney. She said the Kid kept his end of the bargain, but the territorial governor did not.
McGinn said Friday she was disappointed by Richardson's decision but thrilled the pardon question sparked interest. She said she hoped people would come to New Mexico, see letters Billy the Kid wrote to Wallace, walk Lincoln's single street and decide for themselves whether Billy the Kid was "the Robin Hood of the West or a notorious killer."
Richardson, who said he's read countless books and seen numerous movies about the Kid, said the issue gave the state great exposure and prompted discussion over "one of those historical issues that deserves debate and hadn't been tackled before."
Robert Utley, author of "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life," said he was glad Richardson decided against a pardon.
"Governor Wallace was a romantic, and the few press interviews he granted, at the time and 20 years later, cloud the issue. He exaggerated for literary effect, and the reporters probably took it from there to more exaggeration. I don't believe a pardon was promised, only an effort to exempt him from prosecution — a promise he couldn't deliver," Utley wrote in an e-mail to the AP on Friday.
"If Billy deserves a pardon, it will be granted by history, not the governor of New Mexico."
AP correspondent Barry Massey in Santa Fe contributed to this report.