Amber McLaughlin is first transgender person executed in US

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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.

“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.

The bigger picture on gender: 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.

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Clemency petition cites traumatic childhood, mental health diagnoses

A clemency petition filed to Parson on Dec. 12 by McLaughlin’s attorneys requested a sentence of life without parole in place of a death sentence. The document cites chronic trauma McLaughlin experienced in childhood, including brain damage from fetal alcohol exposure, traumatic brain injuries as a child, abuse she suffered — including tasing and beating — at her adoptive home, and her diagnosed depression and suicide attempts as reasons for clemency.

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.

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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.

On Nov. 20, 2003, Guenther’s neighbors called police when she failed to return home, and police officers discovered a broken knife handle and trail of blood near her car at the office building. The next day, McLaughlin led police to where Guenther’s body had been discarded.

A court in 2016 ordered a new sentencing hearing following the presentation of the evidence to McLaughlin’s mental health, but a federal appeals court panel reinstated the death penalty in 2021. Missouri is one of only two states, alongside Indiana, that allows a judge to issue a death sentence rather than a jury. 

McLaughlin began transitioning about three years ago, according to Jessica Hicklin, a formerly incarcerated mentor of McLaughlin’s.

Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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