BECAUSE the man she killed had battered her, Guinevere Garcia would have a good chance, through an appeal, of stalling her execution tomorrow.
But the Illinois convict refuses all efforts to delay her state-mandated death by lethal injection. Ms. Garcia's unusual refusal, along with her gender and her past as a victim of abuse, has revived public debate about how fairly and impartially justice is administered on America's death row.
Should Illinois follow through on Garcia's sentence, she would be the precursor to a probable quickening in the execution of female convicts, say capital punishment experts.
Statistics indicate that, since executions resumed in the United States in 1977, condemned women have faced slimmer odds of execution than condemned men. But now the political popularity of capital punishment and progress toward equality between the sexes seem to be eroding impediments to capital punishment for women. Last year, 56 convicts were executed in the United States, the most since 1957. Several women are scheduled to die this year. Two of them are in Texas, which has not put a woman to death this century, although it has performed three times more executions than any other state.
Since 1977, only one other woman has been executed in this country. During that same time, 98 percent of women who appealed their death penalties had their sentences reversed or commuted, according to Amnesty International, one of the organizations that has tried to forestall Garcia's execution.
Opponents of capital punishment say that women on death row are less likely than men to have committed serial murders or other especially baneful crimes. Most have killed an abusive husband, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
But if condemned women generally have been shielded by a widespread sense of chivalry, those days may be disappearing, the experts say. ''There are no absolutes about executing women, and we are probably going to see more executions of women in the future,'' says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Death-penalty opponents say the Garcia case also shows how justice can be meted out unevenly. Some equally or more ''pernicious'' criminals, they say, have escaped death row by using the legal system. But Garcia has chosen not to fight.
Garcia's father abandoned her soon after her mother committed suicide. The 14-month-old girl was taken in by her grandparents, but at 6 she was raped by an uncle who abused her sexually throughout her childhood. At age 11, Garcia was addicted to alcohol. When she was 15, she was gang raped. By the age of 17, she was working as a stripper and a prostitute.
At 18, while intoxicated, Garcia smothered her 11-month-old daughter because she feared her uncle might gain custody of the child. After she finished serving a 10-year prison sentence, Garcia shot and killed her abusive second husband. He had been one of her customers when she was a prostitute.
Activists who want Garcia to live say her execution is tantamount to state-assisted suicide. It is ironic, they say, that the state, which failed to protect Garcia from neglect, alcoholism, and rape as a girl, aims now to help her kill herself.
But some experts criticize Garcia's advocates for trying to depict her as a victim of social ills and as one who is not responsible for her crimes.
''In order to help someone like Garcia, they have to turn her into a victim, and a lot of people don't want to be victims,'' says Michael Davis, an opponent of the death penalty and a philosopher at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Garcia accepts full responsibility for her wrongdoing and the state-mandated punishment.
''I committed this crime. I am responsible for these crimes. I respect the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court,'' Garcia said in a recorded statement played last week before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
But opponents to capital punishment say Garcia's wishes are ultimately not at the heart of the controversy.
''Should the State of Illinois have the right to kill this woman?'' asks Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the capital punishment project at the ACLU. ''You cannot sidestep this question by saying she wants to die.''