Billy the Kid fails to win pardon from governor

They still call him The Unforgiven, because in the Wild West of America, men are men and grudges tend to endure. Almost 130 years after his death, fans of the Billy the Kid have failed in their effort to secure a posthumous pardon for the famous outlaw.

In one of his last acts as Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson announced yesterday that he was not prepared to sign off on the rehabilitation of an unrepentant crook who had murdered anywhere from nine to 27 people by the time Sheriff Pat Garrett caught up with him in 1881.

Efforts to secure a pardon for Billy the Kid, who was born Henry McCarty, have been bubbling away since earlier this year, when his case was taken up by Randi McGinn, an attorney and amateur historian from the city of Albuquerque.

He claimed that the legendary gunslinger was illegally shot dead by Garrett after having surrendered on the condition that he would receive clemency. As part of the alleged deal, which had been offered by territorial governor Lew Wallace, McCarty is believed to have agreed to testify in a forthcoming murder case.

After Mr McGinn petitioned for the pardon, on grounds that an injustice had perpetrated against Billy the Kid, Governor Richardson set up a website where residents of New Mexico could argue for or against it. A total of 430 people argued for forgiveness, but 379 opposed it.

In the end, Mr Richardson decided that, regardless of public opinion, he was not prepared to sign off on the pardon until credible documentary evidence could be found to lend certainty to his decision. And no such evidence was volunteered.

Although some historical documents suggest that Wallace may have held out the prospect of a plea bargain to Billy the Kid, they are largely inconclusive, and do not detail the circumstances under which Wallace might have reneged on the conditions of surrender, he said.

Mr Richardson announced his decision on live television, saying he would not be issuing clemency "because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Governor Wallace reneged on his promise". He added: "We should not neglect the historical record and the history of the American West."

Billy the Kid, who was 21 when he died, made a living from stealing horses and cattle, and had become one of New Mexico's most wanted men when he escaped from prison two years before Garrett tracked him down.

Though relatively unknown outside the region during his lifetime, he was catapulted to fame as a symbol of the old West in 1881, when Garrett published a sensationalistic biography, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. His story was subsequently turned into countless films, and was even hymned by Bob Dylan.

He is sometimes accused of 27 murders, but over the years has more commonly been said to have committed 21 (one for every year of his life). Both figures are, however, almost certainly inflated: the New Mexico tourism department puts his exact toll at somewhere around nine.

Either way, in 1878, Billy the Kid is said to have witnessed, but not taken part in, the killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. That was the event that lay at the centre of his alleged plea bargain.

Efforts to secure a pardon have been widely discussed in recent months, and the historical controversy is thought to represent a PR coup for New Mexico's tourist industry.