Amid talk of posthumous DNA tests and a potential pardon, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has given his go-ahead for an attorney to represent the interests of Billy the Kid. The lawyer, Bill Robins, will work for free — but it’s not yet clear how big a role he’ll play in efforts to identify the Old West outlaw’s remains.
The Governor's office said Robins’ primary task will be to gather and assess evidence during a renewed investigation into the circumstances of Billy the Kid’s violent life and death, to determine whether the Kid (a.k.a. William H. Bonney, Henry McCarty or Kid Antrim) merits a pardon.
“As the investigation proceeds, there is evidence being compiled that needs to be addressed by an experienced trial lawyer, that in the end will be presented to the governor,” communications director Billy Sparks told MSNBC.com Tuesday. The governor announced Robins’ selection last Friday, Sparks said.
Billy the Kid made a bloody name for himself in the 1870s and 1880s during New Mexico’s Lincoln County War. In 1881, he was convicted on the charge of murdering Sheriff William Brady. He broke out of jail before his date with the hangman, and most historians say he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett months later in Fort Sumner, N.M.
Reopening the case
That last point is where DNA enters into the picture. Over the century that followed, several men claimed to be the real Billy the Kid, each implying that he managed to make a clean getaway and that Garrett shot the wrong man. In the past few months, two sheriffs have opened new case files and are petitioning New Mexico’s 6th District Court to exhume the body of the Kid’s mother, Catherine Antrim, as the first step in a process aimed at identifying the outlaw’s true remains — or at least unmasking the pretenders.
The mayor of Silver City, where Antrim is buried, is challenging the petition, saying that the town’s historic cemetery should not be disturbed. A court hearing is scheduled Dec. 8 in Silver City to determine whether the mayor has standing in the case.
Robins told MSNBC.com that he planned to represent Billy the Kid’s interests in the court case as well as in the broader investigation. He said the genetic identification could have a bearing on the historical standing of the Kid and his nemesis, Sheriff Garrett.
“The true story about Billy the Kid needs to be told,” Robins said, “and therefore it seems to me that it would be appropriate and proper for this exhumation to go forward. ... If the DNA doesn’t match, and Billy the Kid was not ever buried in Fort Sumner, and in fact he did live to a ripe old age, that says a lot about what Pat Garrett did.”
Robins, who admits he’s a Billy the Kid history buff, emphasized that the DNA issue was only one part of a broader investigation. He hoped new light would be shed on whether the Kid actually shot Brady, whether he was promised a pardon by then-Gov. Lew Wallace, and whether he was railroaded for being on the wrong side in the Lincoln County War.
“I’m hoping that this investigation will ultimately lead to a conclusion that Billy the Kid will be pardoned,” Robins said.
Robins said David Sandoval, another attorney in the Santa Fe office of the law firm Heard, Robins, Cloud, Lubel & Greenwood, would serve as co-counsel. Robins, as well as Sparks in the governor’s office, emphasized that no state funds would be spent on the case. Robins said the governor “requested” that he get involved, while Sparks said that Robins “volunteered.”
An attorney representing Silver City Mayor Terry Fortenberry in the DNA case was unimpressed by the news of Robins’ involvement.
“We think it’s primarily the governor’s attempt to get more headlines,” Adam Baker, an attorney with the Albuquerque firm of Kennedy & Han, told MSNBC.com, “but we don’t think it really adds anything to the case.”
Baker said he’ll be interested to hear Robins explain in court why he should play a role in the DNA proceedings.
“My impression is that there’s no legal basis for appointing a lawyer to speak for Billy the Kid from the grave,” he said. “It will probably complicate things in the court proceedings, but I don’t think it will be too difficult for the judge to dispose of Mr. Robins’ claim.”
Moreover, Baker emphasized that the Silver City case related to Catherine Antrim’s remains, not the Kid’s. “Billy the Kid’s wishes don’t matter,” he said. “What matters is the town of Silver City’s interest in protecting its historical landmarks. It’s their property to protect. It’s our position that obviously we have standing.”
That view is contested by Sherry Tippett, the attorney for the authorities seeking the exhumation of Antrim’s remains.
“Only the heirs have standing to block it,” she told MSNBC.com. Tippett said her side had the support of Elbert Garcia, who has long claimed to be the Kid’s great-grandson.
Even though all sides in the Billy the Kid brouhaha say they’re using pro bono services rather than public funds, critics have wondered why public officials are spending such time and attention on a 122-year-old case. Looking beyond the question of frontier justice, those officials usually point out that the Old West legends — and the tourists attracted by such legends — are big business for New Mexico. And they say that makes looking for the truth worth the trouble.
“What happened? How did it happen? Did Pat Garrett shoot Billy the Kid? Is Billy the Kid buried in Fort Sumner, or is he buried in Texas or Arizona or London? Those are things that still intrigue people,” Sparks said. “It’s a 100-year-old mystery that still intrigues people around the world.”