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Missouri Is Set to Execute Amber McLaughlin, First Openly Transgender Death Row Inmate

Amber McLaughlin

Amber McLaughlin. Photo courtesy of Missouri Dept of Corrections

Unless Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) intervenes, Missouri will begin the new year by conducting the first-ever execution of an openly transgender person in the United States when it puts Amber McLaughlin to death on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

McLaughlin, 49, is a transgender woman who has been held at a men’s prison in protective custody at Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, Missouri. She transitioned as an inmate in 2018 after a ruling in a separate case allowed all inmates access to hormone therapy.

McLaughlin was convicted of the rape and stabbing murder of 45-year-old Beverly Guenther in 2003. At the time — and in all court proceedings until 2018 — McLaughlin went by the name Scott McLaughlin, the name that appears on court documents. Guenther was McLaughlin’s former girlfriend.

McLaughlin’s lawyers argue in her petition for clemency that she “never had a chance.” The 27-page petition details McLaughlin’s life, which was pervaded by abuse and neglect beginning with fetal alcohol exposure, abusive parents and foster parents, and neglectful caretakers at every stage in life. The petition details the disturbing abuse, which included withholding food, multiple head injuries, and punishment for McLaughlin when she refused to drown a litter of kittens.

Attorneys say McLaughlin has a “borderline intellectual disability” and has been diagnosed with brain damage.

McLaughlin also argues through counsel that her case was a procedural anomaly that does not support a death sentence. Though most death-penalty states require a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence, Missouri allows a judge to independently impose a death sentence if a jury finds itself deadlocked on sentencing. McLaughlin’s case ended with a hung jury on sentencing after counsel introduced some evidence of the defendant’s extensive childhood trauma.

However, McLaughlin’s lawyers say their client’s lawyer should have introduced more mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase, but failed to do so. In 2016, a federal district court agreed with that assessment and overturned McLaughlin’s death sentence. Later, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that ruling and reinstated McLaughlin’s death sentence. McLaughlin’s appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

McLaughlin’s lawyers say in their clemency petition that their client’s death sentence “rests on the thinnest of margins because it was imposed not by a jury, but by a trial judge.” They also argue that McLaughlin has “expressed genuine remorse consistently and almost immediately after this tragedy.”

Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-Mo.-01) and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-Mo.-05) submitted letters of support for McLaughlin’s clemency, urging Parson to halt the execution.

If McLaughlin is executed Tuesday, it will become the state’s third execution in nine months, which represents a marked increase from recent years.

In an email to Law&Crime Monday, McLaughlin’s counsel, Larry Komp, called his client’s scheduled execution, “an ideal case for clemency.”

Komp continued:

The jury from the community where this occurred refused the opportunity to impose death. They rejected it. So the conscience of the community where this occurred did not think it was a death case. Thus, removing the death sentence conforms with the sentiment of the jury. When you compound that with the fatal error of promising the jury mental health evidence and the breaking that promise, the jury would have returned a life verdict. The mental health evidence explained why this horrible tragedy occurred.

It is wrong when anyone is executed. I hope this first does not occur. Amber’s courage in embracing who she is, a transgender woman, inspires.

[image via Missouri Department of Corrections]

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated from its original version to include comment from counsel.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos