High noon over Billy the Kid's posthumous pardon

Image: Outlaw William 'Billy The Kid' Bonney
Portrait of American criminal William 'Billy The Kid' Bonney posing with his rifle, circa 1880.Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Descendants of Old West lawman Pat Garrett met with Gov. Bill Richardson on Wednesday and urged him to reject the idea of a posthumous pardon for the outlaw Billy the Kid, who was killed by Garrett nearly 130 years ago in New Mexico.

Three of Garrett's grandchildren and two great-grandchildren met with Richardson and the governor's staff in his Capitol office for about an hour. They voiced their objections to a pardon for the Kid, saying it would tarnish Garrett's honor.

Jarvis Patrick Garrett of Albuquerque asked Richardson to sign a petition in opposition to a pardon. The governor declined but told the Garretts he's made no decision about a pardon.

"As far as I am concerned, as soon as I get his signed signature on my petition, then I'll be satisfied," Jarvis Patrick Garrett said after the meeting.

He's gathered about 100 signatures on the petition, which was circulated at a Wild West History Association conference last month in New Mexico.

Family members said Richardson told them he was considering a pardon because he was interested in why Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace didn't follow through on a promised pardon after the Kid testified about killings that happened during the so-called Lincoln County War.

The bloody feud in southern New Mexico broke out in 1878 between two factions vying for control of mercantile and cattle trade. The Kid — who was born William Henry McCarty but also went by the name William Bonney — was later convicted of killing a sheriff during one of many gun battles between the opposing sides.

Alarie Ray-Garcia, a spokeswoman for Richardson, said the governor asked to meet with the Garretts to hear their concerns and "found the family to be very gracious." She confirmed that Richardson has made no decision concerning a pardon.

circa 1890: Pat Garrett (1850-1908). American lawman, elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, 1880, trapped Billy the Kid, who was tried and convicted of murder but escaped in 1881. Garrett tracked and killed Billy at the Maxwell house, Fort Sumner, NM, July 13/14, 1881. In 1908 Garrett was shot in a land dispute near Las Cruces, NM. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)American Stock Archive / Archive Photos

The Garrett family oppose a pardon because they say it would cast doubt over the honor of their grandfather and the veracity of historical accounts that he shot the outlaw.

"We have a tendency unfortunately in this country to glorify criminals," said Pauline Garrett Tillinghast of Tampa, Fla.

The Billy the Kid legend has grown because of Hollywood films, books and historical skeptics who claim Garrett shot the wrong man and the real Kid escaped and lived to an old age.

Richardson waded into the historical fray in 2003 by supporting a plan by southern New Mexico lawmen to reopen the case and the governor said he was willing to consider a pardon for the outlaw. Critics called it a publicity stunt. However, efforts to exhume the body of the Kid and his mother were dropped because of opposition in several New Mexico communities.

Susannah Garrett, left, and her brother Jarvis Patrick Garrett, descendants of frontier lawman Pat Garrett, look at a petition opposing the idea of posthumously pardoning outlaw Billy the Kid after meeting with Gov. Bill Richardson in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. After the meeting, the Garretts said Richardson told them he hasn't made a decision about a pardon. (AP Photo/Barry Massey) Barry Massey / AP

The Garretts spoke out after learning that Richardson again was considering a pardon before his term ends this year.

Although Richardson made no pledge about dropping the pardon, Tillinghast said she was relieved that Richardson told the family he considered their grandfather an honorable lawman and he accepted the traditional historical account about the Kid's death.

Garrett shot the Kid on July 14, 1881. Garrett tracked him to a ranch near Fort Sumner after the outlaw escaped from the Lincoln County jail in a shootout that left two deputies dead. The Kid was in jail awaiting his execution by hanging.

"There are many people who want to do revisionist history and we as Garretts don't want that to happen. We hear these lies. It hurts us," said Tillinghast.