24 July 2010
Would You Pardon a Cop Killer?
RUIDOSO, NM — The history of Billy the Kid is fueled with enduring debates: Was he a hero fighting for justice in a corrupt landscape? Or was he a scoundrel, unworthy of respect, who sank to the level of his enemies?
It might seem politically questionable for Gov. Bill Richardson, on his way out of office, to wade into the debate, but the governor appears to be doing just that. And think of the field day his critics will have if the governor pardons a serial cop killer.
The Governor's Office confirmed that, during a spring meeting in Santa Fe, Richardson asked syndicated columnist Jay Miller to put out feelers to historians and others enthralled with the history of the Lincoln County War to assess the reaction to a pardon for the Kid.
After the Lincoln County War, Gov. Lew Wallace offered to pardon the Kid if he testified about heinous crimes. The Kid did, but Wallace never held up his end of the bargain, and the outlaw subsequently killed two Lincoln County deputies in his infamous escape from the Lincoln County jail.
A spokeswoman for the governor said last week that there's nothing new about Richardson's consideration of a pardon and that the idea just "came up" during the meeting with Miller.
But someone close to the highly publicized Lincoln County investigation of the Kid's 1881 slaying told me he was contacted in recent months by someone from the Governor's Office asking for his reaction to the idea of a pardon.
Richardson first talked about a pardon back in 2003 during a press conference in Santa Fe to announce the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department had opened an investigation into the Kid's slaying on July 14, 1881, by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
The idea, investigators said, was to try to refute, by DNA evidence, claims by several men, such as John Miller and Brushy Bill Roberts, widely regarded as impostors who professed to be the Kid after the historical record said the outlaw had been killed. Those claims, the thinking went, cast doubt on Garrett's character, and modern forensic tools could lay the stories to rest.
In any event, publicity about a new investigation was said to be good for New Mexico tourism.
But critics lambasted the case. Officials in Silver City and Fort Sumner fought off legal efforts to dig up the remains of the outlaw's mother and the Kid himself in the hunt for DNA. They said the investigation just fed doubts about established history and undermined the value of Billy's Fort Sumner grave as a tourist site.
There are even disagreements about whether a pardon would boost state tourism today.
"Leave him (Billy the Kid) alone," said former Fort Sumner Mayor Juan Chavez. "As far as pardoning, what good will it do now? He's dead."
The investigation has since ground to a halt, beset by lawsuits and the rebuffed attempt to dig up the remains of Brushy Bill.
At the Wild West History Association Roundup at the Inn of the Mountain Gods on Tuesday, the question about a pardon was still a hot topic 129 years and one week after the Kid's death.
Santa Fe resident Bob McCubbin, outgoing president of the Wild West History Association, said he and some others would welcome a pardon as long as the claims of "impostors" were not raised and the governor "doesn't mess around with history too much."
Albuquerque historian Chuck Usmar, who is writing biographies of the Kid's adversaries Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, said the Kid should never receive a pardon, given his role in gunning down lawmen. "Whatever one thinks about them, they were still the legally constituted lawmen in the county, and he (Billy) killed four of them," Usmar said.
English author Frederick Nolan, considered one of the pre-eminent historians of the Lincoln County War, said he could see both sides. Nolan said a pardon by Richardson, to make up for Wallace's broken promise, would be "wonderful" as long as no validity is given to any claims by Kid impostors.
But Nolan said he could "just as readily move to the other camp" and question the value of a pardon for the Kid's earlier crimes since, after Wallace reneged, the outlaw murdered two other deputies during his escape.
Then again, Nolan added, the Kid may have felt justified killing to escape a death sentence set up by Wallace's broken promise. After all, the Kid was the only person ever tried and jailed for any of the killings in the bloody Lincoln County conflict. Why die for that brand of justice?
"It's an awful difficult dichotomy to find yourself in if someone puts you on the line and says: What would you do now? You're the governor of New Mexico, what would you do?" Nolan said.
"I don't know that I wouldn't just say, 'I think I'll duck.' "
For my posts on Billy click on the link at right.