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Governor gets an earful on Billy the Kid

With his tenure as New Mexico governor running out this week, Bill Richardson says he is still mulling a pardon for Billy the Kid, with public sentiment leaning in favor of the pardon, according to an aide.

Billy the Kid, who also went by the name William H. Bonney, was convicted of murdering Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady in 1878. Lew Wallace, the governor of territorial New Mexico in the late 1870s, purportedly offered the Kid a pardon if he testified against other members of Billy Campbell’s posse in a separate murder case. The Kid testified, but no pardon was granted.

In April 1881, shortly before the Kid was to be hanged, he escaped from jail and killed two deputies. Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down and killed him on July 14, 1881.

Richardson set up a website this month and asked New Mexicans if they believed the Kid should be pardoned for the Brady murder. In the process, he incited a debate in a place where frontier history still resonates with many.

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Slightly more than half of the roughly 800 respondents said the pact should be honored and the pardon granted, said Eric Witt, deputy chief of staff for Richardson. Others, including descendants of Wallace and Garrett, argued that pardoning a criminal like the Kid would sully the reputations of the territorial governor and the lawmen who chased the Kid down.

“The Kid seems to be winning when it comes to public opinion,” Witt said. “It’s been a very intriguing historic review at an academic level, and it’s just trying to set the record straight.”

(A third camp responded by asking: Why are you wasting your time with this, anyway? That group includes Richardson’s incoming successor, Republican Susana Martinez.)

Richardson, a Democrat and an Old West history buff, began considering the pardon after Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn filed a petition this month.

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McGinn sought absolution for the Brady murder, but not to wipe the slate clean of the Kid’s every crime. “It’s only to enforce one promise the governor made,” she said.

She said historians were finding that Wallace did indeed make a genuine offer, but that he balked under political pressure.

William N. Wallace, the great-grandson of Lew Wallace and a retired New York Times reporter, said the pardon would reduce the governor from an American hero to a “dishonorable liar.”

“This is not a petition,” Wallace wrote in a letter to Richardson. “It is a deceit.”

A pardon for Billy the Kid, he added, would “desecrate, defile, debase and dishonor an American hero in favor of a convicted murderer.”

Witt said the governor had yet to make up his mind. Richardson has a narrow window: His term ends Friday when the clock strikes midnight.

rick.rojas@latimes.com


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