The Life Penalty

UPDATED 02/19/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/19/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

SLOWLY, GUINEVERE GARCIA IS getting used to the notion that she will go on living. She has been moved from the 70-square-foot cell on death row in the Illinois state penitentiary at Dwight, her home for the past 3½ years. In time she will be assigned a cellmate and allowed to mix with the general population of the all-female prison. She has a job now, washing bed linens in the laundry. It is not much to look forward to, really: As a twice-convicted killer, Garcia, 37, has been sentenced to spend the rest of her days behind bars. But it is more, life than she thought she would have. It may even be more than she wanted.

For until the early morning hours of Jan. 16, Garcia had insisted she was ready, even eager, for the injection of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride that would be the means of her execution, her penalty for the 1991 murder of her husband, George. She had requested deep-dish pizza for her final meal, given away the afghan she had crocheted in her cell and received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. "This is not a suicide. I committed these crimes," she said in January. Months before, Garcia had told a judge she wanted no more appeals of her death sentence. "I've made peace with myself and God," she said. She wrote to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar urging that he ignore the antideath-penalty activists trying to save her. For one in particular, Bianca Jagger—a spokeswoman for Amnesty International USA—she audiotaped a pointed message: "Stay out of my case; stay out of my life."

Still, Edgar chose to commute Garcia's sentence. It was not, he maintains, that she was a woman. And it was certainly not that he opposes the death penalty. After all, Edgar has permitted the executions of six men over the past two years. "In none of those cases did I have doubts," he said. "In the case of Guinevere Garcia, I do have doubts.... She did not have murder on her mind when she went to the home of her estranged husband."

The reactions on both sides were predictable, if heartfelt. "This woman is a liar and a murderer," says Mary Ann Guzman-Davis, Garcia's niece. Jagger—the one-time playgirl who now devotes her life to human-rights causes—was overjoyed. "I hope she will forgive me for having done something against her will," says Jagger. "I was struck by the fact that one person could have endured so much tragedy. I understand why she wanted to die."

Garcia would not have been the first woman to be executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court. That distinction went to Velma Barfield, who was put to death in 1984 by lethal injection for the murder of her boyfriend in North Carolina. Yet in the sound and fury surrounding the countdown to her execution date, the circumstances of Guinevere Garcia, as opposed to the horror of her crimes, got lost. Favor the death penaity or not, looking at the events of her life—those she could control and those she could not—it is hard to see Garcia as anything but sad, almost beyond imagination.

She was born on a kitchen table in Chicago in 1958 to Marvell Coutee. Her father, Louis Swan, abandoned the family soon after Guinevere was born. At 14 months, she watched as her mother plunged to her death from a second-story window. From age 6 on, Guinevere was sexually abused by an uncle, who anesthetized her beforehand by forcing her to down shots of Seagram's VO. Garcia told prison psychiatrists that her grandmother knew of the abuse, that-she had once walked in while it was happening. Garcia said her grandmother simply asked her uncle if he was wearing a condom. "She didn't do anything to stop it," Garcia told a journalist. By the time Guinevere was 11, she was an alcoholic. At 14, she was gang-raped. By 15, she had dropped out of school and fled her grandmother's house, supporting herself as a stripper and a prostitute.

Within four years, Guin, as her friends knew her, had been arrested for prostitution, assault and armed robbery. She had also given birth to a daughter, Sara, her child with boyfriend Abraham Solumani. Then, when Sara was 11 months old, in August 1977, Garcia smothered her with a plastic bag. Her trouble with the law had prompted her family to threaten to file for custody of the baby and, Garcia later told authorities, she wanted to protect Sara from the uncle who had raped her. Police initially believed Garcia's story that Sara had died accidentally. Still, "Guin felt horrible, tremendous guilt," says her former attorney Andrea Lyon.

Eventually that guilt began to make itself known. In 1980, around Sara's birthday, she set two fires on Chicago's North Side. In 1981, near the anniversary of Sara's death, she set two more fires in the building in which her grandmother lived. Police, noticing that Garcia was drunk and lingering nearby, questioned her, and she later told them that she knew where to find a murdered prostitute's body. Instead she directed the police to the cemetery outside Chicago where Sara was buried. Soon after she wrote a note confessing to Sara's murder, then told a detective where to find it.

Around this time she had met George Garcia, 28 years her senior, at the Dream Way bar, a dreary honky-tonk where she was stripping. "He was like a Forrest Gump character—a little dumb but very good-hearted," says Mary Ann Guzman-Davis. Not that George was an innocent. According to Garcia, he frequently hit her, and once cut her genitals with broken glass.

At her 1982 trial for Sara's murder, Guin was sentenced to 20 years at Dwight. George visited faithfully every weekend. The two married and divorced while Garcia was in prison; after she was paroled in 1991—having served 10 years—they remarried. They were together briefly, following her release from prison, but after several weeks she moved in with her grandparents and began a relationship with John Gonzalez, a security officer for the Chicago Housing Authority.

In the early morning of July 23, 1991, Guin and Gonzalez spent several hours drinking at her grandmother's house. Looking for money, they drove to Bensenville, Ill., and found George, who was returning to his condo. Guin and George got into his pickup truck, and an argument began. Guin said later that George had hit her and slammed her head against the dashboard—and she shot him point-blank in the chest with Gonzalez's .357 Magnum.

Thirteen months later, Garcia was found guilty of first-degree murder. Since this was her second homicide, DuPage County Circuit Judge John J. Nelligan didn't hesitate to sentence her to death. (Gonzalez, who testified against her, pleaded guilty to armed robbery and served three years of a seven-year sentence.)

And so Garcia found herself on death row, one of 47 women around the country awaiting execution. As the months went by, the tedium became overwhelming. "I have no purpose," she complained to a court psychiatrist. In March 1995, after her appeal of her sentence was turned down, Garcia decided that she wanted to be executed. She could no longer take the "emotional roller coaster" of the appeals process, says her attorney Manos Kavvadias. "It wasn't like she cherished dying. She'd been losing weight, not eating or sleeping."

A few days before she was to die, she met a final time with Father Jonas Callanan, who performs mass for the condemned women at Dwight. Garcia was calm as he administered last rites. "She was accepting responsibility for what she did," says Callanan. "She was seeking forgiveness." Recently she told him her favorite hymn was "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." After listening to the words, he recalls saying to himself, "My God, that's Guin. That's what she's about. The song says, 'Precious Lord, take my hand.... I am tired, I am weak. I am worn.... Through the night, Lead me on to the light.... Lead me home....' She told me for months, 'If He doesn't want me to go, that phone will ring.' "

When the news did come of the governor's reprieve, says Kavvadias, "there was a great sense of relief—like a great weight had been pulled off her." Garcia has said she considered it a sign from God. "He's got something else for me to do." Whatever that divine plan may be, she can be certain of one thing: she will enact it behind the stone walls of Dwight—her home, now, until eternity.

JUDITH VALENTE
BRYAN ALEXANDER, ANA RHODES, and BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago

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