Beverly Guenther: Amber McLaughlin becomes the first trans woman to be executed in the U.S for a 2003 rape/murder of another woman KossyDerrickBlog KossyDerrickEnt


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Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Beverly Guenther: Amber McLaughlin becomes the first trans woman to be executed in the U.S for a 2003 rape/murder of another woman

Amber McLaughlin becomes the first trans woman to be executed in the U.S for a 2003 rape/murder of another woman.

On January 3, 2023, Missouri is set to execute Amber McLaughlin (pictured), the first transgender person scheduled to be put to death in the United States.

Tried as Scott McLaughlin, her jury rejected three of the four aggravating circumstances advanced by St. Louis County prosecutors but split on its sentencing verdict. The vast majority of death-penalty states require a unanimous jury vote for death before the death penalty may be imposed. But under Missouri law, a nonunanimous jury vote is deemed a hung jury, triggering a statutory provision that allowed McLaughlin’s trial judge to independently impose sentence. McLaughlin’s trial judge then relied upon the aggravating circumstances rejected by the jury to sentence McLaughlin to death.

In a 27-page application for clemency filed on December 12, 2022, clemency counsel described the chronic trauma McLaughlin endured as child, including physical and sexual abuse, stints in foster care, brain damage from fetal alcohol exposure, and mental illness that was manifest in severe depression that led to multiple suicide attempts both as a child and an adult. McLaughlin’s trial lawyer had promised in his penalty-phase opening statement to present expert mental health testimony describing that history but then failed to do so when his superiors made a last-minute decision to pull his expert witness. This “compelling mental health evidence,” McLaughlin’s clemency lawyers argued, “would have refuted the sole remaining aggravating factor” in the case — that McLaughlin had acted with “depravity of mind” when she killed her ex-girlfriend.

In 2016, a federal district court overturned McLaughlin’s death sentence, calling the failure to present the mental health evidence a “grievous” and prejudicial error. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that ruling and reinstated her death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declined to review her case.

McLaughlin’s clemency petition has received the support of numerous groups, including seven former Missouri trial and appellate judges and two Missouri members of Congress. Saying that “the voice of the community … did not recommend the sentence of death,” the judges, led by retired Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff, wrote to Missouri Governor Mike Parson on December 15, 2022, urging him to commute McLaughlin’s sentence to life without parole. Representatives Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver, both also ordained ministers, wrote to Parson on December 27, 2022, that “we believe in accountability but also the sanctity of life, and do not think these tenets are mutually exclusive. … You have it in your power to save a life by granting clemency. We urge you to use it.”

The judges, referring to McLaughlin by her gender at the time of trial, argued in their letter that “Mr. McLaughlin was deprived of his right to a jury.” Even without hearing the promised mitigating evidence, the judges noted, “McLaughlin’s jury deadlocked and refused to return a death verdict. Had the mental health evidence that included brain damage been presented, it would have resulted in a life recommendation.”

A woman inmate in Missouri died by lethal injection Tuesday, becoming the first openly transgender person executed in the United States.

Amber McLaughlin’s fate was sealed earlier Tuesday when Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declined a clemency request. McLaughlin spoke quietly with a spiritual adviser at her side as the fatal dose of pentobarbital was injected.

McLaughlin breathed heavily a couple of times, then shut her eyes. She was pronounced dead a few minutes later. Representatives Bush and Cleaver told Parsons that McLaughlin’s background and mental health problems warranted mercy. “Ms. McLaughlin faced a traumatic childhood and mental health issues throughout her life,” they wrote. “She experienced horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of various caregivers; court records indicate her adoptive father would frequently strike her with paddles and a night stick, and even tase her. Alongside this horrendous abuse, she was also silently struggling with her identity, grappling with what we now understand is gender dysphoria. The abuse, coupled with the persistent mental turmoil surrounding her identity, led to mild neurological brain damage and multiple suicide attempts both as a child and as an adult.”

“Ms. McLaughlin’s cruel execution,” they wrote, “would mark the state’s first use of the death penalty on a woman since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and even worse it would not solve any of the systemic problems facing Missourians and people all across America, including antiLGBTQ+ hate and violence, and cycles of violence that target and harm women.”

Issues facing LGBTQ+ capital defendants have attracted increased attention in recent months, with the Ohio Supreme Court’s affirmance of the death sentence imposed on Victoria Drain and the commutation of the death sentence imposed on Oregon death-row prisoner Tara Zyst, both transgender women. A summer 2022 article in the St. John’s Law Review explored the impact of attempts by prosecutors to obtain death sentences against women and LGBTQ+ capital defendants by invoking dehumanizing stereotypes.

Providing multiple case studies, authors Jessica Sutton, John Mills, Jennifer Merrigan, and Kristin Swain argue that “courts are reluctant to remedy the devastating impact of prosecutorial arguments that dehumanize marginalized persons facing the death penalty, condemning these arguments while nevertheless affirming resulting convictions based on procedural doctrines such as harmless error.” Dehumanizing stereotypes, they write, “are particularly problematic—and effective—when used against LGBTQ+ people,” both “reinforc[ing] and leverage[ing] social biases as factors in aggravation [and] creat[ing] artificial barriers to connecting with the person charged, ‘othering’ LGBTQ+ defendants in such a way as to minimize the impact of mitigating evidence.”

McLaughlin was one of the few women who have been scheduled for execution since the practice was reinstated in the U.S. in the 1970s. Of the 2,414 people on death rows nationwide as of April 1, 2022, 50 were women, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. There are no known previous cases in which an openly transgender person was executed, according to the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center.

Evidence regarding McLaughlin's mental health and childhood abuse was not presented at her original trial in 2006, according to the petition.

In a statement referring to McLaughlin by her name and gender identity before she transitioned, Parson confirmed the State of Missouri will carry out the death penalty sentence.

"Ms. Guenther's family and loved ones deserve peace," Parson said. "The State of Missouri will carry out McLaughlin’s sentence according to the Court's order and deliver justice." Since Parson took office in June 2018, five executions have taken place in Missouri after he declined to grant clemency in each case, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death penalty:Oregon governor to commute sentences of all 17 people on state's death row to life without parole

Details of Amber McLaughlin's case
McLaughlin began stalking Guenther at her St. Louis workplace after the couple separated, sometimes hiding inside the building, according to court records. Guenther obtained a restraining order as a result.

“I am sorry for what I did,” McLaughlin said in a final, written, statement. “I am a loving and caring person.”

Who is Amber McLaughlin? McLaughlin, 49, was convicted of killing 45-year-old Beverly Guenther on Nov. 20, 2003. Guenther, McLaughlin's former girlfriend, was raped and stabbed to death in St. Louis County. A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death for the murder in 2006 after a jury was deadlocked on her sentence.

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