Legend says that the notorious gunslinger of the Wild West was promised a pardon in exchange for testifying in a 19th-century murder trial. But authorities in the then-U.S. territory of New Mexico allegedly broke their promise, and the pardon never came. Billy the Kid was shot to death in 1881 after escaping from a jail where he was awaiting execution for killing a sheriff. He was 21.
An Albuquerque trial attorney and Old West history buff, Randi McGinn, filed a petition for Billy the Kid's pardon earlier this year, nearly 130 years after his death. "This injustice should be corrected," the petition states. "A promise is a promise."
Born as Henry McCarty, "the Kid" became a criminal celebrity in America in the late 19th century, committing a string of violent crimes and evading authorities while he was still a teenager. He became embroiled in the Lincoln County, N.M., war of the late 1870s, a violent struggle between groups of cattle ranchers and merchants. In 1878, Sheriff William Brady -- rumored to be the secret agent of a rival Lincoln County faction -- was shot dead. McCarty was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
Held under indictment, McCarty is believed to have struck a deal with Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace, a former Civil War general appointed to govern New Mexico before it became a U.S. state. In exchange for testifying in a murder trial, McCarty would go free and all charges against him would be dropped, including those related to Brady's killing. He testified but wasn't freed as promised, and he later escaped from jail. Historians have pored over details of the supposed agreement for generations, trying to trace what exactly was promised and who betrayed whom.
Announcing his decision not to pardon McCarty, Richardson today cited that "historical ambiguity."
"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," Richardson told ABC.
Richardson waited until the last minute to announce his decision in the McCarty case. He was required to do so before he leaves the governor's office at midnight tonight. Beforehand, Richardson -- a self-described Billy the Kid buff -- set up a website inviting comments from the public, any relatives of the historical figures involved and historians.
But in the end, he said, the evidence just wasn't there. "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 told ABC.
Some members of Garrett's family opposed the pardon, saying it would essentially mean that their ancestor killed a free man, not a felon, in 1881.