ST. LOUIS -- Nearly 1,600 death row inmates have been put to death in the U.S. since 1977, but an execution scheduled for Tuesday in Missouri will be the first of an openly transgender woman.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday said he would not halt the execution of Amber McLaughlin, 49, who is set to die for stalking a former girlfriend and stabbing her to death nearly 20 years ago. McLaughlin's attorneys have not planned any legal appeals.
A database for the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center shows 1,558 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s. All but 17 of them were men, and the center said there are no known previous cases in which an openly transgender inmate was executed.
A clemency petition submitted by her attorneys cited McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard about at her trial. A foster parent rubbed feces in her face when she was a toddler, and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her, according to the petition, which also cited severe depression resulting in multiple suicide attempts, both as a child and as an adult.
The petition also included reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition causing anguish and other symptoms as a result of a disparity between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth. But McLaughlin’s sexual identity was “not the main focus” of the clemency request, said her attorney, Larry Komp.
In 2003, long before transitioning, McLaughlin was in a relationship with Beverly Guenther. After they stopped dating, McLaughlin would appear at the suburban St. Louis office where 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 neighbors called police on the night of Nov. 20, 2003, when she failed to return 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 the body had been dumped.
McLaughlin was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006. A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death after a jury deadlocked on the sentence. Komp said Missouri and Indiana are the only states that allow a judge, rather than a jury, to sentence someone to death.
A court in 2016 ordered a new sentencing hearing, but a federal appeals court panel reinstated the death penalty in 2021.
“McLaughlin’s culpability in Ms. Guenther’s murder has never been in question,” Parson said in a statement released by his office. “McLaughlin’s conviction and sentence remains after multiple, thorough examinations of Missouri law. McLaughlin stalked, raped, and murdered Ms. Guenther. McLaughlin is a violent criminal. Ms. Guenther’s family and loved ones deserve peace. The State of Missouri will carry out McLaughlin’s sentence according to the Court’s order and deliver justice.”
McLaughlin began transitioning about three years ago, according to Jessica Hicklin, a transgender inmate who spent 26 years in prison for a drug-related killing before being released a year ago. Hicklin, 43, 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. McLaughlin has not had hormone treatments, however, Komp said.
Hicklin described McLaughlin as a painfully shy person who came out of her shell after deciding to transition.
“She always had a smile and a dad joke," Hicklin said. "If you ever talked to her, it was always with the dad jokes.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated there are 3,200 transgender inmates in the nation’s prisons and jails.
Perhaps the best-known case of a transgender prisoner seeking hormone therapy was that of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who served seven years in federal prison for leaking government documents to Wikileaks until President Barack Obama commuted the sentence in 2017. The Army agreed to pay for hormone treatments for Manning in 2015.
The U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a 2015 court filing that state prison officials must treat an inmate’s gender identity condition just as they would treat other medical or mental health conditions, regardless of when the diagnosis occurred.
The only woman ever executed in Missouri was Bonnie B. Heady, who was put to death on Dec. 18, 1953, for kidnapping and killing a 6-year-old boy. Heady was executed in the gas chamber alongside the other kidnapper and killer, Carl Austin Hall.
Nationally, 18 people were executed in 2022, including two in Missouri. Kevin Johnson was put to death in November for the ambush killing of a Kirkwood, Missouri, police officer. Carman 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 Feb. 7. He was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her three young children.