Missouri set for first execution of transgender person in the US

Amber McLaughlin faces death by legal injection on Tuesday, after being convicted of first-degree murder in 2006.

A photo of Amber McLaughlin
Lawyers for Amber McLaughlin have petitioned Missouri Governor Mike Parson for clemency, ahead of her scheduled execution on Tuesday, January 3 [File: Jeremy S Weis for the Federal Public Defender Office/AP Photo]

Unless she is granted clemency, Amber McLaughlin, 49, will become the first openly transgender woman to be executed in the United States. She is scheduled to die by injection in the Midwestern state of Missouri on Tuesday for killing a former girlfriend in 2003.

McLaughlin’s lawyer, Larry Komp, said there are no court appeals pending.

The clemency request would have to be approved by Missouri’s Republican Governor Mike Parson to be successful. His spokesperson, Kelli Jones, said the request is still being reviewed.

The clemency request focuses on several issues, including McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard about during her trial.

According to the clemency petition, McLaughlin suffers from depression and has tried to take her own life multiple times. It details that a foster parent rubbed feces in her face when she was a toddler and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her.

The petition also includes reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which is a sense of deep unease – at times leading to depression and anxiety – caused by the disparity between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth.

“We think Amber has demonstrated incredible courage because I can tell you, there’s a lot of hate when it comes to that issue,” Komp said on Monday. But, he added, McLaughlin’s sexual identity is “not the main focus” of the clemency request.

There is no known case of an openly transgender inmate being executed in the US before, according to the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center. McLaughlin, who transitioned in prison, was known as Scott at the time of trial and conviction.

McLaughlin was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006 for killing ex-girlfriend Beverly Guenther.

McLaughlin would show up at the office in suburban St Louis, Missouri where 45-year-old Guenther worked, sometimes hiding inside the building, according to court records. Guenther obtained a restraining order, and police officers occasionally escorted her to her car after work.

Guenther’s neighbours called the police the night of November 20, 2003, when she did not come home. Officers went to the office building, where they found a broken knife handle near her car and a trail of blood.

A day later, McLaughlin led police to a location near the Mississippi River in St Louis, where Guenther’s body had been dumped.

A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death after a jury deadlocked on the sentence. A court in 2016 ordered a new sentencing hearing, but a federal appeals court panel reinstated the death sentence in 2021.

Jessica Hicklin, 43, knew Amber before she transitioned. She spent 26 years in prison for a drug-related killing in 1995 when she was 16,

Hicklin also began transitioning while in prison and in 2016 sued the Missouri Department of Corrections, challenging a policy that prohibited hormone therapy for inmates who weren’t receiving it before being incarcerated.

She won the lawsuit in 2018 and became a mentor to other transgender inmates, including McLaughlin.

Though they were imprisoned together for nearly 10 years, Hicklin said McLaughlin was so shy they rarely interacted. But as McLaughlin began transitioning about three years ago, she turned to Hicklin for guidance on issues such as mental health counselling and getting help to ensure her safety inside a male-dominated maximum-security prison.

“There’s always paperwork and bureaucracy, so I spent time helping her learn to file the right things and talk to the right people,” Hicklin said.

In the process, a friendship developed.

“We would sit down once a week and have what I referred to as girl talk,” Hicklin said. “She always had a smile and a dad joke. If you ever talked to her, it was always with the dad jokes.”

They also discussed the challenges a transgender inmate faces in a male prison – things like how to obtain feminine items, dealing with rude comments and staying safe.

McLaughlin still had insecurities, especially about her wellbeing, Hicklin said.

“Definitely a vulnerable person,” Hicklin said. “Definitely afraid of being assaulted or victimised, which is more common for trans folks in [the] Department of Corrections.”

The only woman ever executed in Missouri was Bonnie B Heady, who was put to death on December 18, 1953, for kidnapping and killing a six-year-old boy. Heady was executed in the gas chamber, side by side with the other kidnapper and killer, Carl Austin Hall.

Nationally, 18 people were executed in 2022, including two in Missouri. Kevin Johnson, 37, was put to death on November 29 for the ambush killing of a Kirkwood, Missouri, police officer. Carmen Deck was executed in May for killing James and Zelma Long during a robbery at their home in De Soto, Missouri.

Another Missouri inmate, Leonard Taylor, is scheduled to die on February 7 for killing his girlfriend and her three young children.

Source: The Associated Press