Billy the Kid: why he missed out on a pardon once again

Billy the Kid killed two guards during an escape after he was first denied a pardon 130 years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson said, a leading factor in his decision not to pardon Billy the Kid Friday.

Lincoln County Heritage Trust Archive/AP/file
This undated file ferrotype picture provided by the Lincoln County, N.M., Heritage Trust Archive is believed to depict William Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, circa 1880.

On nationwide television Friday morning Bill Richardson became the latest New Mexico governor to decide not to pardon legendary gunslinger Billy the Kid.

Governor Richardson, whose successor takes office January 1, had spent his eight-year term pondering a pardon for the outlaw who was ambushed and shot on July 14, 1881. The man who was variously known as Henry McCarty, William Bonney, and William Antrim has been blamed for anywhere from 8 to 22 murders.

Historical documents show that in 1879 Billy the Kid was promised a pardon by the governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, in exchange for testimony against three men accused of killing a one-armed lawyer during the Lincoln County Wars. But Governor Wallace failed to issue the pardon, a fact that Richardson said influenced his decision Friday.

On ABC’s Good Morning America, Richardson said he decided not to issue the pardon “because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Governor Wallace reneged on his pardon.”

Billy the Kid’s bad behavior after he failed to receive a pardon were also a factor, Richardson said. “What I think maybe tipped the scales with me is that Billy went ahead after not getting this pardon and killed two deputies, two law enforcement individuals, two innocents,” Richardson said. The Kid murdered two guards during an escape from the Lincoln County, New Mexico jail.

It is unlikely that Billy the Kid will fare better with incoming New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. She told CBS News that Richardson’s attention to the pardon issue was “a waste.”

Among other things, Richardson assembled a team of scholars to look into disputed claims about Billy the Kid’s identity. New Mexico claims to be the Kid’s final resting place, in an old military cemetery in Fort Sumner. But residents of Hico, Texas claim Billy escaped New Mexico law enforcement officials and eventually moved to their town, dying there in 1950 at the age of 90.

At his announcement about the pardon on Friday, Richardson denied the focus on a pardon for Billy the Kid was a publicity stunt to whip up tourism in his state. “It’s living history. We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West,” he told ABC News.

But he did admit that the debate over the pardon boosted travel to the state. Points of interest in New Mexico linked to Billy the Kid include his foster home in Silver City, where he liked to gamble in Ruidoso, and the Fort Sumner cemetery. There is also a Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner.

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