After a lengthy debate that aroused national and international attention, Bill Richardson announced on his last day as New Mexico's governor that he would not grant a pardon to long-dead outlaw Billy the Kid.
Mr. Richardson, who aired his decision New Year's Eve on ABC's "Good Morning America," explained that the facts of the case didn't support a pardon.
Had the pardon request submitted by attorney and history buff Randi McGinn been granted, it would have covered an amnesty offer supposedly given to Billy the Kid by then-Territorial Governor Lew Wallace for the 1878 killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady.
Billy the Kid, also known as William H. Bonney and Henry McCarty, killed two more law enforcement officers after receiving the unfulfilled offer. Sheriff Pat Garrett fatally shot him in 1881.
"I've decided not to pardon Billy the Kid because [of] a lack of conclusiveness and also the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his pardon," Mr. Richardson said Friday morning on the show.
Mr. Richardson, a history buff himself who has alluded to the possibility of a pardon since 2003, said what "tipped the scales" for him was Billy the Kid's decision to kill the two additional law enforcement officers. "It was a very close call," Mr. Richardson said.
Although records are unclear, Billy the Kid is believed to be responsible for between four and nine killings. Descendents of those who opposed the outlaw were pleased with Mr. Richardson's verdict.
In an e-mail to the Associated Press on Friday, Garrett's grandson, Jarvis Patrick Garrett, wrote, "Yea!!! No pardon! Looks like it will be a great new year!!!!"
Many were certain Billy the Kid would join dead Doors singer Jim Morrison in receiving pardon. Charlie Crist of Florida granted Morrison clemency in early December. Gary Johnson, Mr. Richardson's predecessor, refused to consider pardoning the Kid back in 2001.
According to the New Mexico Independent, Mr. Richardson granted 19 other clemency requests in has last days in office. The governor's office had been reluctant to release information about clemency grants until last week. After Wednesday, however, Mr. Richardson said he would not consider the other 241 requests from convicted persons for before leaving office.
On Thursday, the request for the Kid was the only one pending. The governor's office failed to return multiple voice and e-mail messages from The Washington Times.
Some other governors who left office Dec. 31 granted more pardons than Mr. Richardson. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin granted 111 pardons in his last 3½ months in office. On one day alone in November, Ted Strickland of Ohio approved clemency to 78 individuals.
The governor's office received some 430 messages in favor of the Kid's pardon and 379 against from all over the world. Mr. Richardson admitted that the case provided "great publicity" for New Mexico.
Many, including the newly inaugurated governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, have criticized Mr. Richardson's focus on Billy the Kid. Ms. Martinez said the state had better things to do than waste time deliberating over the possible pardon of a notorious dead outlaw, and called the pardon issue a waste of time.
"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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