No pardon for 'cop killer' Billy the Kid

New Mexico's governor yesterday dismissed the idea of granting a posthumous pardon to Billy the Kid, ending 130 years of wrangling over the status of one of the Wild West's most notorious outlaws.

Eight years after promising to give the matter consideration, and just hours before his term in office expired, Governor Bill Richardson announced he had decided not to grant clemency to the legendary gunslinger, who gained folk hero status despite killing at least eight people.

He was, however, convicted of only one murder, that of Sheriff William Brady. The Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, aged 21, before he could be tried for other crimes.

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"The romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it," Mr Richardson revealed on ABC's Good Morning America programme.

The idea of granting a pardon stemmed from records suggesting that in 1879, Lew Wallace, the then governor of the disputed New Mexico Territory, made a promise to the Kid that he would pardon him for killing Brady if he testified before a grand jury about a separate killing he had witnessed.

The Kid - who also went by the names William H Bonney and Henry McCarty - gave testimony, but the governor reneged on the deal.

After being sentenced to hang for murdering Brady, and angry at the governor's betrayal, the Kid broke out of jail, killed two of his guards, and rode away on a horse singing.

In researching the case, Mr Richardson consulted Mr Wallace's great-grandson, William Wallace, and three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of Sheriff Garrett. All opposed a pardon, one denouncing Billy the Kid as a "thief, terroriser … and cop killer".

Mr Richardson also set up a website to invite public comment, which resulted in a narrow majority backing clemency. But he said yesterday: "I've decided not to pardon Billy the Kid because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Governor Wallace reneged on his pardon.

"What I think maybe tipped the scales for me is that Billy went ahead after not getting this pardon and killed two deputies, two law enforcement individuals, two innocents."

The governor acknowledged that his protracted deliberations over how to end one of the Wild West's most infamous tales had prompted a tourist boom for New Mexico. A six-day Billy the Kid tour, from his birthplace of Silver City to the site of his death at Stinking Springs, is advertised on the state's tourism website.

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Mr Richardson also admitted enjoying the attention the case brought. But he defended his decision to consider the matter, saying: "It's living history. We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West."

Others were critical. Susana Martinez, who takes over from Mr Richardson as New Mexico governor, said it was "a waste of time", with more urgent matters facing politicians. Those who might agree include 241 other living convicts whose applications for clemency Mr Richardson refused to even consider.