Then & Now: The Pardoning of Billy the Kid

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By the age of 19, Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney or "the Kid," had seen plenty of trouble. His home was New Mexico Territory, an area populated by businessmen looking to make a quick buck, investors searching for a rich mine, and outlaws hoping for a fresh start. By the time the Lincoln County War erupted in 1878, McCarty was well entrenched in outlaw circles.

The Lincoln County War, a conflict between groups of rival cattle barons, engulfed the region in violent gunfights and revenge killings. The cycle of murder and retribution spun out of control for months and forced President Rutherford B. Hayes to appoint a new Governor in New Mexico -- Lew Wallace. When Wallace attempted to end the fighting by offering amnesty to all involved, Billy the Kid responded. "I have no wish to fight anymore," McCarty wrote in a letter to Governor Wallace. "Indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation."

"I have the authority to exempt you from prosecution," Wallace wrote in a return letter, "if you will testify to what you know." The following month, the Kid appeared in front of a Lincoln grand jury; his testimony helped law enforcement charge 50 more men with murder and other crimes related to the Lincoln County War. Following the trial, McCarty's petitions to Wallace went unanswered. When the local district attorney refused to drop the charges against the Kid, he fled Lincoln County. "I don't think Lew Wallace gave a damn about Billy the Kid," says writer Michael Wallis in the film.

Billy the Kid spent the next year and a half as an outlaw. Wallace published a notice in New Mexico papers in December 1880 announcing a $500 reward for the delivery of the Kid. After being caught and jailed, in April 1881 the Kid managed a legendary escape, cementing his status as a Western icon. On July 14, 1881, the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garret, never having received his pardon.

In 2002, Bill Richardson was elected Governor of New Mexico. A self-proclaimed "history buff," Richardson had been interested in New Mexico history for decades. When he announced his intention to research a potential pardon for Billy the Kid, 129 years after his death, it caused major controversy. A group including sheriff Pat Garret's grandson and Governor Lew Wallace's great-grandson voiced outrage. Pardoning Billy the Kid, they believed, would sully the reputations of Garret and Wallace, who had labored for years to catch the famous outlaw. There is no proof of Wallace's offer for a pardon, the descendants claimed, citing an April 1881 newspaper article that quoted Wallace saying he had no intention of pardoning the Kid.

On the other hand, there were many who felt the Kid deserved a pardon. When Governor Richardson called on the public to help with his decision, reports showed the majority of the more than 800 email responses favored the pardon.

Ultimately, the Governor did not make a decision until his last day in office in December 2010, when he announced on live television, "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."

"No Pardon for Billy the Kid," read the New York Times the following day, as the decision made headlines across the country. "It's living history," Richardson explained to the Times. "We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West." The attention the story attracted proved once again that Americans remain fascinated by the myth and legacy of our Western outlaws more than 130 years later. 

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From Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, and George Custer to Geronimo, the real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.