by Carol Marin, The Chicago Sun Times
Ten days ago, I took a trip I wouldn't have predicted. This is a story about a near-execution, a graduation and a decision by former Gov. Jim Edgar that has delivered unexpected consequences.
It's a story about rising up and reaching down
In January 1996, Guin Garcia, an inmate on Death Row at Dwight Correctional Center in Downstate Illinois, was on the verge of execution.
Months earlier, Garcia, a 36-year-old convicted double murderer, had dropped her court appeals, said she was done "begging for her life" and put the wheels in motion for her death by lethal injection. It would mark the first execution of a woman in the U.S. in two decades. It became an international story.
Garcia's biography wasn't pretty.
At age 2, she saw her mother jump out a window and die.
Her father split. She was reared by grandparents and an uncle. The uncle began raping her when she was 7, giving her alcohol to calm her and shut her up.
Family members confirm the grandmother knew but did nothing.
By 16, she was an alcoholic and a prostitute. By 17, she was married and pregnant.
Her baby, Sara, was not yet 1 when she suffocated her with a plastic dry cleaning bag rather than face the prospect of DCFS taking Sara away to live with the grandmother and the pedophile uncle.
She confessed, went to prison for 10 years, married one of her tricks, an older man named George Garcia, who once, according to Supreme Court records, genitally mutilated her with a broken bottle.
Drunk one night, she shot and killed George.
Her sorrow over Sara is something Guin Garcia lives with every day. She is not sorry about George.
Fourteen hours before her scheduled execution in 1996, Gov. Edgar, who had signed off on the executions of four men, suddenly stopped the wheels from turning on this one. For a Republican who supported the death penalty, it was not an easy decision. Edgar commuted her sentence to natural life.
Last week, I went back to the prison at Dwight. With a 3.95 "A" average, Garcia was graduating magna cum laude from Lake Land College.
Dressed in caps and gowns, marching to "Pomp and Circumstance," 57 other women received GEDs and certificates in computer technology, commercial cooking, dog training and business management.
Friends and family filled the prison gym. Small children were in their Sunday best, waving to their mothers. There aren't many happy days in prison, said Warden Mary Sigler. This was one.
As one of the inmates rose to claim her diploma, a young man in a back row proudly cried out, "That's my Mom!"
Garcia was last to be called up, the only one that day to accept a college degree, an associate in liberal studies.
You might be asking, what's the point? Why waste tax dollars on a lifer? There's an answer.
It's what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen calls "Rising up, reaching down."
Graduates I talked to that day, including one who is 28 and has been locked up since she was 15, told me the reason she earned her GED last year and got a certificate in professional dog grooming this year was that Garcia, whom younger inmates call "Granny," demanded that she straighten up and fly right.
Garcia's quest for education helped motivate hers.
That young woman -- a slight, pretty African American -- will get out in two years better prepared to go forward because Guin Garcia, in life's depths, somehow found it in herself to rise up and reach down.
Today, Garcia is 49, with no illusions about getting out. And yet, thanks to a decision by a pro-death penalty governor to spare one life, new life has been given.
Rise up. Reach down.
It can happen anywhere.