Alas, no pardon for Billy the Kid

New Mexico’s Richardson says ‘close call’

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“Well, this is American history,” Mr. Richardson offered as an explanation to why he bothered with the gunslinger’s case. “This is New Mexico’s history. … It’s living history. We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West.”

On that account at least, history buffs agree with Mr. Richardson — the attention the case has drawn to the infamous outlaw and the Old West is a positive thing.

“As a historian, when history is on the front pages, it’s a good thing,” said Mark Lee Gardner, Old West historian and author.

Although Mr. Gardner said he could understand the frustration of many who have decried the entire consideration of Billy the Kid’s pardon, he called the attention beneficial and “a very positive experience.”

“People came to realize that it’s not just Billy the Kid’s story, but it’s Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett’s story,” he said. “These two are permanently linked in the American consciousness.”

Billy the Kid himself, Mr. Gardner said, might not have understood the world’s fascination with him today, as he felt misunderstood and mislabeled by the media as a rampant killer while alive. Even Garrett admitted that Billy the Kid was not the kind of person he would call a killer in a 1902 newspaper article Mr. Gardner recently unearthed.

“I think what Pat Garrett meant was Billy wasn’t a murderer,” Mr. Gardner said. “When he killed people, there was a reason.”

Mr. Gardner said much the public’s fascination with the Kid lies in the complexity of his identity as a man outside the law. Moreover, the Kid died young (21, by most accounts), an under circumstances still deemed controversial. Many historians see Billy the Kid as “fighting an injustice of a corrupt system,” he said. Wallace’s disputed pardon offer plays into the tangled web of debate, too. Granting a pardon, however, cannot change history, he said.

“A posthumous pardon, all it does is it make the living feel a little bit better about that history.”

Billy the Kid expert historian Leon Metz, who called Mr. Richardson’s pardon consideration a publicity stunt, agreed.

“I don’t know whether he deserves a pardon, but I think he’s a remarkable figure in American history, and to argue over whether or not he deserves a pardon personally I think is silly,” Mr. Metz said.

Ms. McGinn was still hopeful for a pardon from another New Mexico governor, now that more evidence and interest has surfaced about the case. In the government’s acknowledgement of a pardon, she said the first step to clearing Billy the Kid had been taken.

“We won the battle in that the governor acknowledged that there was a promise, a broken promise, by Gov. Lew Wallace, but we lost the war,” she said, adding that a future governor could still grant a pardon.

Mr. Metz said comprehensive, precise details surrounding Billy the Kid’s life and death will never surface.

“Of course, you never can prove everything,” Mr. Metz said. This will always be a mystery.”

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