Friday, December 31, 2010

Second NM Governor Exploits, Betrays Billy the Kid

Outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went on national television, Good Morning America to be exact, to announce that he wouldn't be pardoning Billy the Kid after all. He joined Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace in becoming the second governor to exploit then betray the legendary outlaw.

It should be noted that unlike, say, commercial real-estate magnate Eddie Gilbert, Billy the Kid didn't donate tens of thousands of dollars to Richardson's campaigns. (Though in fairness, Gilbert never killed two deputies in daring escape from the Lincoln County Jail either.)


I meant to include this:

Governor Bill Richardson's Full Statement Regarding Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is not dead.

He was shot through the chest on the night of July 14, 1881 by one of the most famous lawmen of the American Old West. His body fell to the floor, glass-eyed and lifeless. His corpse was buried where it expired, at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where it lays in a lonely grave to this day -- a just and lasting epilogue to a life spent pillaging, ravaging and killing the deserving and the innocent alike.

Yes, Billy the Kid was killed by Pat Garrett in 1881. But The Kid is not dead. Not by a long shot.

He remains very much alive in the culture, history and imaginations of the public to this day. Not just in New Mexico but throughout the country and around the world. This is the message I received during the recent ten days of public comment on the issue of whether or not a pardon was promised but never granted the Kid by territorial governor Lew Wallace, and if so whether I should fulfill such for Henry McCarty/Henry Antrim/William H. Bonney, a/k/a “Billy the Kid.”

On its surface the question before me is rather simple: Did my predecessor, Governor Lew Wallace, promise a pardon to The Kid for past deeds in return for the latter’s testimony in a particularly notorious murder trial? If so, and given the fact that The Kid did provide that testimony at great peril to his own life, why was that promise not fulfilled? Should it be? Pretty simple. But as is often the case, what appears simple on the surface can be complex in the depths.


If a pardon was offered, it was targeted at The Kid’s alleged role in the death of William Brady, a sheriff in southern New Mexico. It was specific in scope and not prospective. This is a crucial point, as the pardon offer did not cover subsequent events in Billy’s life such as his killing of two deputies at the Lincoln County Courthouse. No “blanket pardon” for Billy the Kid was, or is, under consideration.

Having said that, and while there is no “smoking gun” in the form of, say, a written letter from Wallace to Bonney specifically offering a pardon, a growing preponderance of evidence leans in that direction. This includes subsequent letters from Bonney to Wallace imploring him to ‘keep his end of the bargain;” statements and testimony from those with first hand knowledge of the case; media accounts of the day; and published interviews in which Wallace himself seems to confirm this arrangement, or at least his indication to Bonney that a pardon was in the offering. Much of this material is housed in the New Mexico state archives. This is coupled with the fact that there was no pronounced outcry from Wallace when these accounts appeared in the contemporary media, a difficult-to-explain curiosity had Wallace never made that promise.

It’s also known that Governor Wallace granted amnesty to other violent criminals of the day including murders, cattle rustlers and highway robbers, in an attempt to bring an end to the bloodshed of the Lincoln County Wars. So it is in keeping with Wallace’s prior actions that he would offer a similar pardon to The Kid. This is even more compelling given the extreme danger to The Kid for what he was being asked to provide. Namely, damning testimony against members of the murderous Dolan gang in a trial for the killing of a one-armed lawyer named Chapman. And Billy did provide that testimony, clearly indicating he expected something of great value in return. Given that other than personal vendettas, the overriding threat facing him at that time was the indictment for the Brady killing, the only thing of that value would have been the removal of the threat of prosecution regarding Brady -- i.e. a pardon.

All of this strongly indicates that a pardon was in play. Even many strident opponents of a pardon concede this point.


So the evidence indicates a pardon was offered to The Kid but never delivered. Pardons were granted to comparable rogues by Governor Wallace. The Kid did testify in the Chapman murder case at great personal peril. In other words, Billy, at least, did his part. It seems pretty simple.

However, pardons are serious business. History is serious business. If one is to re-write a chapter as prominent as this, there had better be certainty as to the facts, the circumstances and the motivations of those involved. While I believe Governor Wallace did promise The Kid a pardon – and The Kid did keep his end of the deal – I don’t know exactly why the pardon was never granted. Who knows what the specifics of their arrangement were? Who knows for sure what, exactly, was promised? Maybe there was more to the deal than just the testimony. Or maybe there were conditions of the pardon being issued that The Kid violated. The point is, I don’t know for sure. No one does. And then there’s the fact that The Kid killed two more lawmen while escaping capture. That has to weigh in the decision.

Therefore I am not in a position at this time to issue a pardon for Billy the Kid. History lives on.