Gov. Bill Richardson: 'I've Decided Not To Pardon Billy the Kid'

Billy the Kid was allegedly promised a pardon in 1879.

ByABC News
December 31, 2010, 7:09 AM

Dec. 31, 2010 — -- It's been a year of pardons from two Mississippi sisters paroled in exchange for one donating a kidney to another to rock singer Jim Morrison to even a presidential turkey. But one American legend who narrowly escaped redemption was Billy the Kid.

"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," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said exclusively on GMA today.

As legend has it, Gov. Lee Wallace made a promise to Billy in 1879 to grant the gunslinger amnesty if he testified before a grand jury about another murder case in Lincoln County. Billy the Kid, whose real name was Henry McCarty and used the alias William H. Bonney Jr., was in jail at the time for having killed then-Sheriff William Brady.

Wallace reneged on his agreement to pardon Billy the Kid.

In 2003, Richardson, a history buff, first said that he would consider pardoning the famous outlaw. He finally made up his mind today.

"It was a very close call. I've been working on this for eight years. The romanticism appealed to me to issue a pardon, but the facts and the evidence did not support it and I've got to be responsible especially when a governor is issuing pardons," Richardson said.

Richardson said that Billy the Kid's decision to continue to kill after the pardon wasn't granted to him impacted his decision.

"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.

Legend has it that Billy killed anywhere from eight to 22 people. He was captured and shot in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

Garrett's descendants were opposed to the pardon.

"You can't reward bad behavior with good," Bill Garrett said.

When asked if whether publicly agonizing over whether Billy should be pardoned was a big plug for New Mexico's tourism industry, Richardson said it was more about setting the historical record straight.

"It's living history. We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West," he said.

Still, he added that the debate over pardoning the outlaw did boost the city's tourism.

Billy the Kid has been a celebrated folk hero for decades. The legend of the likeable gunslinger who died with his boots on at age 21 still brings in big bucks to the state of New Mexico. In fact, the state's website promotes a six-day Billy the Kid self-guided tour from his hometown of Silver City to Stinking Spring, the location where Sheriff Pat Garrett supposedly captured him.