Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

5-28 State refusal to release records will cost taxpayers

52812 BTK$

SANTA FE – The long, strange case of Billy the Kid is about to become much more real to New Mexicans. This chapter began in 2003, when new Gov. Bill Richardson and some sheriffs decided they wanted to dig up some graves to prove that Pat Garrett actually shot Billy.
Approval to dig up graves was required from the state Office of the Medical Investigator. That office denied the requests saying that time, flooding and gravesite movement over the past 120 years made finding the correct bodies and obtaining usable DNA essentially impossible.
It should have ended there with the only cost to the state being the time of an OMI official to process the request. But the governor and sheriffs went to court and found a Silver City judge who said if Billy's DNA could be produced, he'd let his mother's grave be dug.
So the scene shifted to Fort Sumner where it was eventually dropped. If the case had ended there, the only cost to the governor and sheriffs would have been for some legal time and court costs, which likely were paid for by private donations.
But it wasn't over yet. The sheriffs said they found the carpenter's bench on which the dead Kid was laid. Blood samples were taken from the bench. The sheriffs then turned their attention to Prescott, Arizona, where the Kid's pretender John Miller was buried at the Arizona Pioneer Cemetery.
Since it was a state-run facility, Gov. Janet Napolitano evidently gave approval to dig an unmarked grave to look for Miller's bones. On the second try, with a back hoe, a skeleton with buck teeth was found. Samples were taken from that.
Those samples and the samples from the carpenter's bench were sent to a Texas lab for DNA matching. When nothing was heard, those with great interest in the Billy the Kid legend became suspicious. They wanted to know the results. By that time the governor had dropped out and the focus of the Lincoln County sheriffs seemed to have shifted to proving Pat Garrett didn't kill Billy the Kid.
So historian Gale Cooper and De Baca County News publisher Scott Stinnett filed suit requesting the lab report from the sheriff's office. For five years the sheriffs refused to produce the report. The legal wrangling through the courts finally has resulted in an order to produce the records.
And just as the state Office of the Medical Investigator had predicted nine years earlier, the tests were inconclusive. So how much has this court action cost the state? Besides their own costs, the state must pay the expenses of those who prevail in court.
I am told the lawyers seeking the public records are claiming close to $500,000 in expenses. The state's own costs typically run higher than plaintiffs who sue the state so this easily can be over a million-dollar case at this point. On May 31, in Sandoval County District Court, a hearing will be held to determine the extent of the plaintiff legal fee claims.
It is too bad all that money couldn't have been used to promote Billy the Kid Country. The lawsuits themselves have attracted scant media attention so have done little good except to preserve the Billy legend. That is good for New Mexico, where nearly all the legend occurred. And it is good that the hard work of many dedicated historians has been preserved.
The New Mexico Tourism Department, after running an ambitious Billy the Kid promotion last year, now has dropped all information on Billy the Kid Country on its Web site. Maybe it is only temporary since the subject is one of the most popular for tourists. It also must be popular with newspaper readers since I receive more mail on that subject than any other.
What will be the next chapter in the Billy the Kid saga? Historians tell me a new one crops up about every 10 years. This chapter began nine years ago.


Post a Comment

<< Home