If you are born on a kitchen table and your mother is an alcoholic who was raped from an early age by her father and brothers, the chances are your life is not going to turn out very well. Your chances of cheating destiny will not improve if your mother proceeds to commit suicide, flinging herself from an apartment window when you are 14 months old.

After just such a start in life, it was downhill all the way for Guinevere Swan. That she should have ended up, aged 37, on death row - grateful to be spared further pain, begging to be allowed to die, imploring the governor of Illinois not to grant her a pardon - seemed like the natural concluding act to a drama so calamitous that it exceeds the scope of fiction. If a writer were to make a novel out of her life - christening her with such an implausibly fairy-tale name - he or she would be dismissed as a perverted fantasist.

According to court records and the testimony of her lawyers, Guinevere's father abandoned her when she was born and after her mother's death she was entrusted to the care of her maternal grandmother - she who stood silently by as her husband and sons raped her child. When Guinevere (called Gwen by her family) was six, her uncle John softened her up with alcohol one night and did to her what he had done to his sister, Guinevere's mother. He raped her repeatedly, again and again, until she was 11. On one occasion the grandmother, who had evidently been led by circumstances to the conclusion that this kind of behaviour was normal, did intervene. She asked her son whether he was wearing a condom.

Professor Andrea Lyon, of the University of Michigan law school, was Guinevere's lawyer until last summer, when Guinevere fired her for trying too hard to overturn her death sentence. In a letter Professor Lyon wrote on Sunday to the governor of Illinois, Jim Edgar, seeking clemency for her former client, she wrote: "When Gwen began to drink at age 13 (most of her family drinks heavily), it was no surprise. When she was 'dancing' in a disreputable place at age 15, it was no surprise, and when she was hooking thereafter it was no surprise. At least not to any of the mental health professionals I spoke about this case with. Her behaviour is all too typical of abused children: no self-esteem, self-destructive behaviour, sexual promiscuity."

Before Guinevere became a stripper, performing under the stage name Guinevere Coutee at a nightclub called the Dream Way, she was gang-raped by five teenage boys. The five were arrested but never convicted, instilling into her mind the suggestion that the legal system was no more to be trusted than her family.

When she was 16 her grandfather sold her in marriage for $1,500 to an Iranian student called Simon Falakassa, who until then had been striving unsuccessfully to gain permanent residency status in the United States. The two lived on and off as husband and wife for 18 months, but when she became pregnant it was by another man. The couple separated, she moved in with an older man called Steve Garber and, at the age of 17, she bore a child whom she named Sara Garber.

Before she had reached voting age, Guinevere, her life having spiralled completely out of control, had employed four different surnames.

In baby Sara, Guinevere saw an opportunity for redemption. Here at last was one human being on whom she could bestow love and who might, in time, give love in return. The grandmother, however, would have nothing of it. Deeming Guinevere unfit to bring up a child, she battled to win custody over Sara. The grandmother's chances of triumphing looked good: she had no criminal record, while Guinevere was on probation for prostitution. One night, in drunken despair, Guinevere used a plastic bag to suffocate Sara, who was not yet one year old. As she would explain later, it was the only means she had to save the child from the horrors she herself had endured.

The police did not at first find out that it had been murder. The baby's death was ruled accidental. It was only four years later that the police pieced together what had really happened. A police arson investigator noticed that Guinevere had been present at the scene of several fires. The officer discovered, upon further inquiry, that the fires had occurred on the anniversaries of Sara's birth and death. It turned out that she had been engaging in ritual acts of expiation.

The officer tracked her down and she confessed to the murder and to the fires. She was sentenced to 20 years in jail but served 10 because of good behaviour, emerging a free woman in 1991 and into the arms of the husband she had married in jail, a client during her days of teen prostitution. George Garcia, who at 60 was old enough to be her father, provided a tortured reminder that life outside the prison walls was a vale of tears. He beat her routinely. On one occasion he forced a broken bottle into her vagina, inflicting what the medical records describe as a two-inch laceration of the vaginal and rectal walls.

One night in July 1991 she got drunk and quarelled with Uncle John, who had raped her as a child. She tried to stab her uncle with a knife, but was prevented from doing so by a third party - a relative of her erstwhile live-in companion, Steve Garber - who stepped in between them. She returned home, still angry, at about three in the morning, whereupon she got into a fight with her husband. He bashed her head three times on to the roof of a car parked outside their house. She pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

In convicting her of first-degree murder a year later, the presiding judge found that she had not been "under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the crime". Thus, according to the law of Illinois, she was sentenced to die by lethal injection. Five out of seven Supreme Court judges who heard the appeal in November 1994 concurred with the trial judge's opinion and the sentence was upheld.

Guinevere, who still called herself Garcia, has found God in jail and become a fervent Roman Catholic. But she lost all hope of earthly salvation. Against the entreaties of Sister Miriam, a Benedictine nun who befriended her on death row, she decided to drop all further appeals.

In August she told a judge: "I don't want to die, your honour, but my life is miserable. I made peace with God and myself. I am sitting in prison while my victims are dead. My life has no purpose, no meaningful existence."

Sister Miriam, speaking last week, said that in many years visiting prisoners on death row she had never encountered anyone who had suffered as terribly as Guinevere. "She is a very lovely lady, a very beautiful woman, very sensitive and caring," Sister Miriam said. "But she is also a very determined woman, very firm in her decision not to go on with her appeals. That would seem, in her eyes, to be begging, and maybe she feels she has begged too often in her life and not got what she wanted.

"I'm very torn because I respect her decision to die. But she knows I will fight it to the end and she does not resent me. When I saw her on Thursday, probably for the last time, we hugged. I asked her, 'If the governor gives clemency, what will be your response, because it's possible, you know?' She said her life was in God's hands and if it was her time, she would go."

But off-stage, campaigners were banding together to defer Guinevere's time of death - Amnesty International, American lobbyists against the death penalty and defenders of battered women. Bianca Jagger, who is on the leadership council of Amnesty, led the final charge last week, co- authoring a letter to Governor Edgar requesting a clemency hearing. The hearing was held last Thursday in Springfield, Illinois, which happens to be Abraham Lincoln's birthplace.

Guinevere was not present but she sent a message, which she had tape- recorded in her cell. In it she hit out angrily at Ms Jagger by name and others who had campaigned to deprive her of her dying wish. "Stop interfering," she said. "Stay out of my case. Stay out of my life. This is not a suicide. I committed these crimes. I respect the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court. I am competent to waive my right to appeal."

Ms Jagger testified at the hearing that she had been very torn about responding to Amnesty's request that she become involved in the case but she believed that as a matter of justice, irrespective of Guinevere's wishes, society could not allow her to be killed. "While she appears to be resigning herself to her fate," Ms Jagger said after the hearing, "what I believe she is really doing, for the third and possibly final time in her life, is engaging in an act of control."

Governor Edgar, bombarded by letters from Amnesty members and under pressure from the media and Ms Jagger, retreated to a country cabin at the weekend to ponder his decision. The execution was scheduled for one minute after midnight yesterday. Guinevere had ordered her last meal, deep-dish pizza, and had already given away her clothes and possessions to friends on death row. On Tuesday morning, even as Guinevere prepared to take Holy Communion for the last time, the governor delivered his verdict. Guinevere should never be free again, he said, but her crime should not be punishable by death.

The celebrations of those who had campaigned to deny Guinevere her date with the executioner's needle were dampened by uneasy feelings of guilt. "When I heard of the governor's decision I was glad, at first. Then I wondered, 'Oh my God! What will Guinevere think about it?' " Ms Jagger, who has never met Guinevere, said in an interview on Tuesday night. But then Guinevere issued her reaction through a lawyer.

" 'Thank God that this has happened'," the lawyer quoted her as saying. "She was relieved - like a big weight had been removed from her."

"I, too, felt relief," Ms Jagger said. "I was so happy. I knew then that we had been right in sticking to our principles and persisting in our efforts to get the governor to spare her life."

Barring further legal scrutiny of Guinevere's case, what now remains of her life does not hold too many charms. She may come to regret the governor's decision to reprieve her. But she may not. For she has learnt, for the first time in her life, that there is such a thing as mercy, such a thing as love, even in the embrace of strangers.