My Death Row Christmas village
Updated: January 23, 2014 6:35AM
Every December I put up my Death Row Christmas village.
I know that sounds crazy.
But to me it’s a reminder that in the darkest places you can find a little light.
The village is a collection of 17 elaborate miniature houses and steepled churches.
Each tiny building is stitched together with craft store plastic webbing and white yarn.
Since prisons don’t allow inmates to have needles, the wire from a garbage bag tie pulls the yarn through the holes in the sheets of plastic.
And since inmates are not allowed to have scissors, the yarn and webbing are laboriously cut with a nail clipper.
My Death Row Christmas village arrived in late 1995. Return address: Dwight Women’s Prison.
It was sent by Guin Garcia, who was awaiting execution. A convicted double murderer, she had decided to drop all further appeals, saying she would no longer keep “begging for my life.”
Her story, which she allowed me to tell, got international coverage because a woman hadn’t been executed in the United States since the early ’80s. And because, then and now, this country incarcerates more people per capita than any other.
While some killers, like John Wayne Gacy, engender not a whit of sympathy, Guin Garcia’s life story was a ghastly tale of serial rape by a pedophile uncle from the time of her childhood. And genital mutilation by her husband.
None of the horrors she endured excuse her crimes but perhaps help explain them.
When it came time to sign off on her execution, Gov. Jim Edgar refused to do it even though he had sent men, including Gacy, to their deaths.
Why spare her?
By phone from Springfield on Wednesday, Edgar spoke thoughtfully about his decision.
“Pate Philip (president of the state Senate at the time) thought it was because she was a woman,” said the former governor. “And maybe, raised by a single mother, subconsciously I was biased toward women . . . but I think had it been a man and the facts were the same, I would have done the same thing.”
Edgar commuted Guin Garcia’s sentence from death to life in prison.
She is 55 now and doing time downstate in Lincoln, Ill. We’ve stayed in touch all these years.
When she called collect the other day, I told her that I’d once again put up her Christmas village. And I asked how things were where she is.
“There is no real sign of Christmas here,” she said, adding with a laugh, “but there is a small band of little Clarences at work.”
Clarence as in the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Guin, whom younger inmates call “Granny,” has a small crew of women she calls her “grandbabies.” And every year at this time they anonymously leave a bit of candy or a bar of soap, precious commodities in prison, on the pillows of inmates who are having a particularly hard time on this holiday.
It’s a very small thing.
But a little light in an otherwise dark place.