The Trial of Billy the Kid, by David G. Thomas, Mesilla Valley History Series, Vol. 7, Doc45 Publishing, Las Cruces, N.M. 2021, $19.95.
This latest offering in a well-researched and much-recommended series written by Las Cruces–based David Thomas centers on New Mexico’s unofficial state outlaw, Billy the Kid—hardly an untapped subject. But as the author notes in the introduction, “Billy’s trial is the least written about and, until this book, the least known event of Billy’s adult life.” The best-known periods of the Kid’s life are probably his coming of age in Silver City, N.M. (including his mother’s death, his first arrest, his jailing and his escape); his fighting years in the Lincoln County War (in support of the John Tunstall/Alexander McSween faction); his April 28, 1881, escape from the courthouse in Lincoln (during which he killed two of Sheriff Pat Garrett’s deputies); and his July 14, 1881, shooting death by Garrett in Fort Sumner. Yet Thomas contends that Billy’s murder trial in Mesilla, which ended in a “hanging sentence,” was the pivotal event in the Kid’s life, as it doomed him to an early death.
There were actually two Billy trials in Mesilla. The first, for the killing of Andrew L. “Buckshot” Roberts, was thrown out on April 6, 1881, as the federal government lacked jurisdiction. The second, for the killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, began on April 8 with the selection of jurors. A day later those jurors found Billy guilty of first-degree murder, which meant a death sentence. Why the brief trial has received so little coverage (usually just time, place, names and result) is explainable in part by the fact there was no transcript. “The rule of the court,” Thomas explains, “was that if a case was not appealed, then the court did not pay the clerk to make a formal transcript for the case file. That was an unnecessary expense for an unappealed case.”
On April 13 Judge Warren Bristol sentenced Billy to hang a month later in Lincoln. During the trail the Kid did not testify in his own defense; in fact, his attorney, Colonel Albert Fountain, called no witnesses. “Billy’s defense,” Thomas writes, “consisted only of what Colonel Fountain could tell the jury on his behalf. It appears that Colonel Fountain provided Billy with something less than the most vigorous defense.” Further, the author adds, “Billy had several grounds for the appeal he never received.” Much of the trial information Thomas presents comes from Las Cruces–based Newman’s Semi-Weekly, a short-lived newspaper published between March and July 1881.
Despite the book’s title, Thomas covers far more here than just the trail (which would have made for an extremely short book). The first seven chapters mostly detail the actions that led to the murder charges against Billy. Much of this material will be familiar to fans of the Kid, though Thomas presents it well, especially the way he demonstrates how New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace was guilty of a “pardon betrayal.” Wallace issued a blanket amnesty to men who committed crimes and misdemeanors during the Lincoln War, with the exception of Billy, with whom he later reneged on a pardon agreement. The trial action in Mesilla is limited to Chapter 8. The last two chapters of the 280-page book relate the post-trial story. Thomas includes three appendices, including a helpful cast of characters mentioned in the book.
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