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The Billy the Kid Pardon: Eight Burning Questions About a Dopey Controversy

Enough!  Enough of these endless headlines about a maybe-pardon for Billy the Kid.  Since nobody has explained to my satisfaction why we’re even talking about it in 2010, I’ve done the research. 

Here are the answers to your eight burning questions about Billy the Kid and the Great Dopey Pardon Scandal of 2010.

Who was Billy the Kid, again?  He was an outlaw of the 19th century: a robber, killer, and hell-raiser of the American West whose real name was Henry McCarty. He was a baby-faced teen when he started his spree and only 21 when he was killed — hence the nickname “Billy the Kid.”

Wait, wasn’t his real name William Bonney
?  No.  He was born Henry McCarty, but took the aliases William Bonney and William Antrim after he moved out west.

But why a pardon? Didn’t he kill a bunch of guys?  Legend says he killed 21 men; the truer number seems to be between 4 and 12.  But the pardon has nothing to do with that. The question at hand is whether he should receive a pardon that he was allegedly promised by Governor Lew Wallace of the New Mexico Territory in 1879.

Wait, Lew Wallace?  You mean Ben-Hur Lew Wallace?  Right, the author. The same guy who was a Union general in the Civil War, helped try the conspirators for the killing of Abraham Lincoln, and was later the American minister to the Ottoman Empire.  He was also governor of the New Mexico territory from 1878-81, and that’s where he met Billy the Kid.  In fact, he finished writing Ben-Hur while he was governor.

So, again, why the pardon?  As governor, Wallace was trying to deal with the Lincoln County War, a crazy western range war of the day. Billy the Kid had been a hired gun in the Lincoln County War, and he wrote Wallace a letter offering to testify against others in return for a pardon. The two met and struck a deal, in which Wallace is said to have promised Billy that if he testified, “I will let you go scot-free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds.”

The Kid did his part, submitting to a staged arrest and testifying in court — but then the local district attorney refused to let Billy the Kid out of prison, and Wallace never quite came across with the pardon.  The Kid escaped from prison and went on the lam, and later (among other misdeeds) killed two deputies.  He was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.

The Kid’s supporters say that if he’d been pardoned by Wallace, he might have gone straight and the rest of his misdeeds and killings never would have happened, etc.  But of course that’s not clear.

Why bother with this 130 years later?  New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson, has been dropping hints about Billy the Kid and a pardon since he took office in 2003. It seems to be a personal whimsy of his, and his Hispanic heritage may also have something to do with it: some Hispanic families in New Mexico claim to be descendants of Billy the Kid and are sympathetic to him. A Hispanic legislator, Rep. Benjamin R. Rios of Las Cruces, began seeking a pardon for Billy the Kid in 2001, and Gov. Richardson’s musings have been partly in response to that idea. 

Richardson’s second and final term as governor is ending, which is why there’s so much talk about this now. An Albuquerque attorney named Randi McGinn submitted a formal petition for a pardon earlier this month, and Richardson invited comment from the public on the petition. Only the Governor knows why he’s even thinking about it.  He has never said he would definitely issue a pardon, and his critics say he’s just being coy and likes the publicity. 

Who’s against it?  Leading the charge against the pardon are the descendants of Sheriff Pat Garrett, who somehow feel that a pardon for Billy the Kid would be an insult to their grandpappy.  After that it gets complicated fast: law-and-order advocates paint it as a “soft on crime” issue, and meanwhile the “Brushy Bill” Roberts camp — the birthers of their day — are weighing in again with their claim that Billy the Kid was never shot by Garrett and lived to age 90 in Texas. 

When will this nutty story finally be over?  By December 31st.  That’s Richardson’s last day as governor, and he’ll have to pardon or not pardon before the clock strikes midnight.  The incoming governor, Susana Martinez, has already dismissed the issue as a waste of time.

[Update, 31 December 2010:  Richardson did NOT pardon Billy the Kid.]

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