Wanted: Pardon for 'Billy the Kid'

Billy the Kid was among the most notorious figures of the early frontier, a legendary outlaw who killed several lawmen at a time when blazing, six-gun showdowns were part of the Wild West.

Nearly 120 years after his death, a New Mexico lawmaker has offered a proposal that could set up a different kind of showdown: whether the outlaw should be given a posthumous pardon.

Rep. Ben Rios introduced the proposal asking Gov. Gary Johnson to pardon Henry McCarty — aka Billy the Kid.

But relatives of Sheriff William Brady, who was ambushed by Billy and others in Lincoln on April 1, 1878, aren't ready to forgive or forget.

"Whoever said something like that has got to be crazy," said Bennett Brady, 70, the sheriff's great-grandson. "No, he doesn't deserve pardoning. As far as I'm concerned, that's wrong."

Robin Hood or Cold-Blooded Killer?

The outlaw's descendants "just want to see if Billy could be pardoned, for the peace of mind of whoever is left who knew Billy or their family knew Billy," Rios said Wednesday. Although Rios would not say who the descendants are, he said a "spokesman for the family" asked him to seek the pardon.

Neither Bennett Brady nor Assistant New Mexico Attorney General Joel Jacobsen, who wrote a book about Billy the Kid, knew of any surviving descendants of the outlaw.

Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang in April 1881 for shooting Brady in the back as the sheriff was walking down the dusty main street of Lincoln, a little cattle town in southern New Mexico. He escaped jail weeks later by killing two deputies, and was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881.

Some consider Billy the Kid a cold-blooded killer, while others say he's a Robin Hood of the Old West who helped the oppressed during a corrupt time.

Jacobsen's book, "Such Men as Billy the Kid," tells how the Lincoln County War began after Lawrence G. Murphy, James J. Dolan and Emil Fritz went into partnership in Lincoln. U.S. Attorney Thomas B. Catron, head of the powerful "Santa Fe Ring" that ran the New Mexico territory, was an investor in their store.

Pardon Restores Civil Rights

Billy worked for an Englishman named John Tunstall, who sought to challenge their monopoly.

The sheriff, acting on behalf of Murphy and Dolan, ordered Tunstall's assets seized in February 1878, and Tunstall was killed as he sought to comply with Brady's order. Billy and his trailmates staged counterattacks, killing several Murphy-Dolan partisans, including Brady.

But Rios suggests many of Billy's crimes are exaggerated. Although Jacobsen believes Billy the Kid shouldn't be pardoned, he said then-Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace led the outlaw to expect a pardon.

"At that time, the gun was the law," Rios said. "My main thing is just to satisfy my constituents. Whatever happens after that is up to the governor."

Rita Nunez, who filters the pardon requests for the governor's office, said Johnson has turned down a dozen such requests. This may be the first time a state legislator has asked, she said. The proposal has yet to be assigned to a legislative committee for a hearing.

The purpose of a pardon is to restore somebody's civil rights, Nunez said.

"As Billy the Kid is deceased, he is not in need of restoration of his civil rights," she said.