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First Transgender Prisoner Execution Carried Out in Missouri

by Jo Ellen Nott

Missouri executed Amber McLaughlin, 49, by lethal injection on January 3, 2023, after she sat on death row for at least a decade as Scott McLaughlin. Hers was the first state-sanctioned murder of the new year and also the first known execution of an openly transgender person.  

McLaughlin was convicted of the 2003 murder of her girlfriend, Beverly Guenther. Guenther had been remaking her life after divorce when she met McLaughlin and entered a relationship that devolved into manipulation and abuse. After McLaughlin burglarized her home, Guenther obtained a restraining order because McLaughlin “threatened her and her friends” and “showed up at her job and watched everything that she did.” 

After Guenther died, a jury convicted McLaughlin of first-degree murder, forcible rape, and armed criminal action. But it came to a deadlock on the sentencing. Missouri does not require a jury to unanimously vote for the death penalty but instead tasks the judge to decide between life without parole or death when a jury splits. The judge in McLaughlin’s case imposed the death penalty. 

McLaughlin came up through the foster care system after being abandoned by her mother. Her childhood of neglect and abuse – in one foster placement, she had feces rubbed into her face, and her adoptive father later used a Taser on her – was presented by the defense in her trial, but it was not corroborated by medical evidence. Years later, in a clemency petition to Gov. Mike Parson (R), it was revealed that McLaughlin had been “consistently diagnosed with borderline intellectual disability” and “universally diagnosed with brain damage as well as fetal alcohol syndrome.” The clemency petition also cited multiple suicide attempts resulting from depression. Parson denied the petition.  

In 2016, the federal court for the Eastern District of Missouri vacated McLaughlin’s death sentence, agreeing with her attorneys that the sentencing judge overreached in superseding the deadlocked jury to issue a death sentence. The district court also agreed that McLaughlin’s original counsel provided “ineffective assistance” by failing to present medical evidence of her mental health issues. On August 18, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that decision and reinstated the death penalty. See: McLaughlin v. Precythe, 9 F.4th 819 (8th Cir. 2021).

The brother of McLaughlin’s victim, Al Wedepohl, 58, witnessed the execution and told the press that McLaughlin’s gender transition was a “ploy” to escape the death penalty. It upset him, he said, that his sister’s death was eclipsed by intense news coverage before the execution about McLaughlin’s identity as a trans woman.

McLaughlin’s attorneys and other supporters, including 51 people who showed up in Bonne Terre for an execution vigil, lobbied until the end for her life to be spared. They also believe that gender identity should have no bearing on her case.

Additional sources:   CNN, Missouri Times, MSNBC, St. Louis Public Radio

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