January 16, 1996
Web posted at: 11:55 p.m. EST
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (CNN) -- Just 14 hours before Guinevere Swan Garcia was about to become the second woman in 20 years to be executed in the United States, her death sentence was commuted to life in prison with no chance of parole. Garcia, who earlier had fought to keep her execution date, said "thank God this has happened" when she heard Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar's decision.
Garcia, 37, was scheduled to be put to death shortly after midnight Tuesday for shooting her husband during an argument. Over Garcia's objections, death penalty opponents Sister Miriam and Amnesty International's Bianca Jagger campaigned for her clemency.
They argued that Garcia has had a long history of abuse that included alcoholism and sexual molestation, and that her execution would be inhumane in light of her harrowing past.
But Garcia said she was prepared to accept her fate. She told the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that "this is not a suicide, I am responsible for these crimes."
Gov. Edgar, who had never before overturned a death sentence, said Garcia's crime did not justify execution and that her husband's murder was not premeditated. "Horrible as was her crime, it is an offense comparable to those that judges and jurors have determined over and over again should not be punishable by death," Edgar said in a statement.
Edgar said that while his ruling went against Garcia's wishes, it was not the state's responsibility to carry out the desires of a defendant.
Manos Kavvadias, Garcia's attorney, said his client had never really wanted to die but was "drained" after losing an earlier appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. "She was ready to accept the sentence as it was," he said. After she learned of the governor's decision, "a big weight had been removed" for her, Kavvadias said.
Jagger said the outcome may have been affected by a letter from Garcia's former lawyer. Sunday, the lawyer faxed a letter to Edgar's home but the exact contents are unknown. Jagger also said the governor was told by his legal counsel that Garcia "obviously lacked adequate legal representation."
Edgar rejected arguments that Garcia was a victim of battered woman's syndrome and his aides said that neither media attention nor Garcia's gender influenced his decision.
Jagger and others said it was the overwhelming history of abuse that set Garcia on a tragic path.
At age 2, Garcia saw her mother commit suicide. At 3, her father left. At four, she was given to her maternal grandmother. Beginning at 5, she says she was regularly raped by an uncle; at 10, she says, she was gang-raped. By 12 she was an alcoholic. By 14 she was a prostitute.
Garcia said she was ready to die and deserved to die, not only for the 1991 murder of her 60-year-old husband, but also for the smothering death of her 11-month-old baby Sarah in 1977.
The baby's death was at first thought to be an accident, but later an arson investigator got Garcia to admit she killed her daughter.
After serving 10 years in prison for murdering her child, she married one of her customers, George Garcia. According to records not allowed in court, he brutally abused her. "He ripped her private parts with a broken bottle," Jagger says.
Court records revealed that Garcia had used a gun in 1991 to rob her husband, but when they fought she shot him. Edgar says that evidence shows Garcia intended to rob him, not kill him.
Prison officials say Garcia will remain on death row for the time being. According to defense attorneys, she has the choice of serving her sentence or conceivably appealing the sentence by claiming ineffective legal assistance.
Velma Barfield is the only woman put to death in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The 52-year-old woman was executed by injection in North Carolina in 1984 for poisoning her boyfriend.
AP contributed to this report.
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