August 2, 2010 — -- It's a duel right out of the Wild, Wild West.
After announcing he's considering granting a posthumous pardon to legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has made himself a target of the descendants of Pat Garrett. The former sheriff of Lincoln County is believed to have shot the historical figure down 129 years ago.
Despite his criminal background, Billy the Kid has been a celebrated folk hero for decades. The legend of the likeable gunslinger that 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 Garrett supposedly captured him.
He has also been immortalized on the silver screen by Kris Kristofferson, Paul Newman, and most recently, Emilio Estevez.
For more than a century later, Billy, whose real name was Henry McCarty, has remained a fixture in western culture. But, most recently, he grabbed the attention of Gov. Richardson, who had an interesting proposition in 2003.
"If there is evidence, I will consider pardoning Billy the Kid," Richardson said.
"A Deal Is A Deal"
Richardson, who leaves office later this year, reportedly wanted to follow through with a promise made to Billy by New Mexico Territory's Governor Lee Wallace. As legend has it, Wallace was supposedly going to grant Billy amnesty back in 1879 if he testified before a grand jury about another murder case in Lincoln County. Billy, who was already in jail for having killed then-Sheriff William Brady, was said to have actually considered the offer.
But, after waiting for 27 days, Billy escaped from the Lincoln County Courthouse, killing two deputies in the process. It was Garrett, Brady's successor, who eventually found Billy and shot him dead on July 14, 1881.
"Billy agreed to squeal to get amnesty from prosecution," said Mark Lee Gardner, author of "To Hell on a Fast Horse," a dual biography of Billy and Garrett. "I think a deal is a deal…Some of those killings wouldn't have happened if [he] had gotten amnesty. It's complicated—it's not completely black and white, it's somewhere in [the] middle."
A Pardon for Billy the Kid? New Mexico Gov. Weighs the History
Many still debate what actually happened that summer day. Richardson reportedly even used state funds to determine whether Garrett actually killed Billy, who was also known as William Bonney.
"It does seem absurd… but it shows us how much history [is] still part of us," Gardner said. "Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett never rode into the sunset, and I hope they never do. This is a perfect example of a continuation of that saga."
"Both Can Be Heroes"
Although Richardson says he has not decided on a course of action, his interest in the matter has angered Garrett's descendants who say pardoning Billy would be a disgrace to Pat's memory and to those who fell victim to the violent outlaw.
"Why doesn't the governor attend to doing his governor work and stop trying to be a tourist agent," said family member Bill Garrett.
But Gardner sees Richardson's involvement as an investment in the past.
"It's very exciting," Gardner said. "Governor [Richardson] has a sense of the state's history and wants to be part of that."
The governor's office says he plans to meet with Garrett's family sometime this week to discuss the issue.
"Both can be heroes—[there's] plenty of recognition and honor to go around, Pat as an upstanding lawman, Billy as our wild spirit who fought the law and lost," Gardner said. "But [it] gives him something he should've gotten back in 1881."