A murder trial for the books

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Many of the side characters that had a small roll in New Mexico’s Lincoln County War have been neglected. The flashy players, starting with Billy the Kid, have largely overshadowed the lesser lights.

Among the dim bulbs worth some attention is Judge Warren H. Bristol. One historian identifies him as “a Republican hack,” that being the only type of man likely to obtain a federal judgeship in the 1870s.
Born at Stafford, N.Y. in 1823, Bristol was admitted to the bar before moving to Minnesota at mid life. He served two undistinguished  terms in the state legislature there before President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to the New Mexico territorial supreme  court as an associate justice.
Once in the capital, Judge Bristol easily gained membership in the influential clique, known as the Santa Fe Ring, which then dominated the territory’s politics and economy.
That probably explains how he happened to win a second plum, as a presiding trial judge in New Mexico’s Third Judicial District, headquartered at Mesilla. Since Lincoln County was in that jurisdiction, Bristol handled cases growing out of the war, including the murder trial of Billy the Kid.
Before that occurred, the judge in 1878 had presided over the embezzlement trial of Alexander McSween who headed one of the factions in the Lincoln County conflict, with which the Kid was allied.
McSween was a foe of the Ringites in Santa Fe, hence Judge Bristol spared no pains in tinkering with the proceedings and even inventing testimony for the record to ensure a guilty verdict.
A former assistant attorney general for New Mexico and author, Joel Jacobson has written: “Like many other judges both before and after him, Bristol would sooner do something dishonest than something illegal.”
Before Billy the Kid faced Judge Bristol on charges of killing Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman, his friend Alexander McSween had been shot down by enemies in Lincoln town.
In late 1880, Sheriff Pat Garrett captured Billy and several of his fellow outlaws east of Ft. Sumner. After languishing in the Santa Fe County jail for three months, the Kid was sent downriver on the railroad for trial in Mesilla.
It is clear from the beginning that the partisan judge intended to convict the accused. Billy’s two-day trial before an all Hispanic jury got under way on the morning of April 8, 1881.
The cramped courtroom was in a narrow adobe building on one corner of the Mesilla Plaza. At the far end, the judge was seated behind a desk on an elevated platform, while the defendant sat to one side of him, handcuffed and attended by armed guards.
Bristol appeared to be a small, timid man “with a full gray beard and a cadaverous look about his eyes.” In spite of his hopeless situation, Billy seemed defiant.
The record of witness testimony and legal arguments has not been discovered. However, we know that Judge Bristol’s lengthy instruction to the jury indicated that a guilty verdict was the only one possible.
Thus, Billy the Kid was found guilty of first degree murder and was ordered sent to Lincoln to await his execution by hanging. His subsequent escape, pursuit by Sheriff Garrett, and killing at Ft. Sumner is well-known.
The Mesilla trial stands as the high point in Warren Bristol’s life. His irregularities in the proceedings failed to tarnish his reputation at the time. In other instances, though, he was accused of legal improprieties that cast a shadow over his career.
A year after the Billy trial, Bristol moved to Deming. Still on the Supreme Court, he could travel to Santa Fe by train. But in 1885 he resigned that position.
Upon his death, Jan. 17, 1890, at Deming, the entire town closed down to attend his funeral, according to the press, “as a mark of respect for the Judge’s memory.”
Recent writer Mark L. Gardner has stated that Billy the Kid’s trial at Mesilla “now ranks as one of the most famed criminal trials in New Mexico history.” Without it, Warren Bristol would be forgotten today.