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Posthumous Pardon for Billy the Kid?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on August 02, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While neighboring state Arizona handles the legal show down over SB 1070, the state of New Mexico has a few pressing problems of its own. Governor Bill Richardson has said he is considering issuing a posthumous pardon to the legendary thief and gun-slinger Billy the Kid, a.k.a. Henry McCarty or William H. Bonney. There are those up in arms against the possible pardon and no, it is not the descendants of any of Billy's victims, it is the family of the man credited by many (but not all) with killing the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The latter-day Garretts are calling on Richardson to hold the pardon, as it would result in what they call an "inexcusable defamation" of their forbearer, Sheriff Garrett, according to the Associated Press. How a pardon to the long-dead outlaw would actually defame the character of the man credited for his death is not quite clear, but that is the family's argument.

More of a obvious legal question is the pardon itself. According to The National Post, a pardon was offered by the then-territorial Gov. Lew Wallace in 1879, in exchange for The Kid's court testimony. It appears that what Billy had at the time was something akin to a good old fashioned plea bargain. A plea bargain, as anyone who has watched TV in the last 50 years knows, is an agreement between prosecutors and an accused for a reduced sentence or other lessening of punishment in return for information that will allow prosecutors to make a case, sometimes to allow them to hook a bigger criminal fish. It can include a guilty plea to a lesser charge than those originally brought, but must be done voluntarily and consensually by the defendant. In this case, Billy was offered the pardon in return for testimony, but it evidently never came.

Many historians think that Billy was killed in a shoot out with Sheriff Pat, but others think he survived and fled to Texas where he supposedly survived to the ripe old age of 90, expiring less violently of a heart attack in 1950, reports the AP. This may or may not be the sagebrush version of a conspiracy theory, but the dispute rages on. Now the shoot out adjourns to Santa Fe, where Richardson will discuss the ramifications of the pardon with Garrett's grandchildren sometime this week.

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