New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has declined to pardon Old West outlaw Billy the Kid, who was shot to death in 1881 after escaping jail where he awaited hanging in the killing of a sheriff.

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Henry McCarty, also known as Billy the Kid, is pictured in this undated photograph obtained by Reuters. ((Library of Congress/Reuters))

The prospect of a pardon for the notorious frontier figure drew international attention to New Mexico, centring on whether Billy the Kid had been promised a pardon from New Mexico's territorial governor in return for testimony in killings he had witnessed.

The facts of the case didn't support a pardon, Richardson said Friday on ABC's Good Morning America.

The proposed pardon covered the 1878 killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. Billy the Kid was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, a few months after escaping from the jail.

According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 people, one for each year of his life. But the New Mexico Tourism Department puts the total closer to nine.

Richardson, the former UN ambassador and Democratic presidential candidate, waited until his last day in office to announce his decision. His term ends at midnight Friday.

Ambiguous historical record

The historical record on the pardon is ambiguous, and Richardson staff members told him in August there are no written documents "pertaining in any way" to a pardon in the papers of the territorial governor, Lew Wallace, who served in office from 1878 to 1881.

Richardson said he decided against a pardon "because of a lack of conclusiveness and the historical ambiguity as to why Gov. Wallace reneged on his promise."

Sheriff Pat Garrett's grandson J.P. Garrett and Wallace's great-grandson William Wallace expressed outrage over a pardon after Richardson set up a website in mid-December to hear from the public.

Richardson's office received 809 emails and letters in the survey that ended Sunday, with 430 favouring a pardon and 379 opposed. Comments came from all over the world.

The website was established after Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn submitted a formal petition for a pardon. McGinn argued that Lew Wallace promised to pardon the Kid, also known as William Bonney or Henry McCarty. She said the Kid kept his end of the bargain, but the territorial governor did not.

The Kid was a ranch hand and gunslinger in the bloody Lincoln County War, a feud between factions vying to dominate the dry goods business and cattle trading in southern New Mexico.

Clandestine meeting

Billy the Kid killed two deputies while escaping jail, but McGinn's request did not cover those deaths.

The Kid wrote Wallace in 1879, volunteering to testify if Wallace would annul pending charges against him, including a murder indictment in Brady's death.

A tantalizing part of the question is a clandestine meeting Wallace had with the Kid in Lincoln in March 1879. The Kid's letters leave no doubt he wanted Wallace to at least grant him immunity from prosecution.

Wallace, in arranging the meeting, responded: "I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."

"It seems to me that when the government makes a deal with you, it should keep its promise," McGinn said after filing the request.