Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

8-30 A Promise May Not Be a Promise

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- When is a promise not a promise? That is what Gov. Bill Richardson needs to decide as he debates whether to fulfill the promise of a pardon former Gov. Lew Wallace may have made to Billy the Kid.
First, a promise isn't worth much if it isn't in writing. Otherwise it is just one person's word against the other's. No record exists of any written promise by Wallace.
The Kid claimed to have something written by Wallace that Wallace would not want others to see. If so, Billy never played that card even after he was sentenced to hang.
There are no written documents pertaining in any way to a pardon in the archive of Wallace's papers maintained by the Indiana Historical Society. Staff members of the archive have sent an e-mail and a letter to Gov. Richardson notifying him of that fact.
New Mexico state historian Rick Hendricks says he has no documentation of a pardon promise by Gov. Wallace. William N. Wallace, 86, of Westport, Connecticut, says he sees no historical foundation for Richardson to offer a posthumous pardon for the Kid.
Wallace, a great grandson of Gov. Wallace, says nothing in his lifetime knowledge ever suggested his great grandfather ever intended to give the Kid a pardon and he has notified Gov. Richardson.
Fredrick Nolan, the leading Lincoln County War historian, says to the best of his knowledge no contemporary of the Kid's ever mentioned his "deal" with Wallace -- nothing even in the extensive interviews with the Coe brothers by Evetts Haley.
Twenty years later, when Wallace was a famous author on speaking circuits, he would entertain his audiences with stories of Billy the Kid.
Lengthy newspaper interviews of Wallace in 1900 and 1902 contained fanciful recollections that bore little resemblance to what had actually happened 20 years earlier.
William Wallace, the great grandson, says he questions the accuracy of those accounts because so many facts were wrong, including Jesse James being part of Billy's gang.
Doug Clanin, a former editor of the Wallace papers for the Indiana Historical Society says Wallace was adept at improving on old stories for entertainment value.
One of Wallace's stories on the lecture circuit was that Billy, while in the Santa Fe jail, threatened to release a letter from Wallace. But Wallace said he preempted the Kid by taking the letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican along with his explanation of the meaning. He said he showed the newspaper clipping to Billy, who dropped the subject.
Historian Mike Pitel says Wallace never visited Billy in jail and no such letter appeared in the New Mexican during that period.
Second, an unwritten promise is not a promise if it is never acknowledged. Wallace never responded in any way to Billy's claims that they had a deal. Billy never used the word pardon in describing the deal.
Obviously Wallace said something to the Kid during their one meeting that made Billy think if he testified about killings he had witnessed, he could walk free.
In arranging his one meeting with the Kid, Wallace told Billy: "I have the authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify."
Obviously Billy took that to mean he wouldn't be prosecuted but that's not what Wallace said. Wallace was a top notch lawyer and is said to have used trickery in court. He also was a great writer, careful of his words.
Combine those with the skills of a politician and diplomat and Wallace had Billy at a disadvantage. Historians have assumed there was a deal. But the likelihood is that Wallace had made no deal on which to renege. He simply outsmarted his opponent.
Despite his courtroom trickery, Wallace was an honorable man. If he had made a deal, in all likelihood he would have fulfilled it. But Wallace knew Billy would go back to a life of crime after their clandestine meeting, which he did, and that the situation would never be right for a pardon or anything short of it.
MON, 8-30-10

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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