Missouri execution reignites conversation on capitol punishment

Amber McLaughlin, sentenced to death row without a jury in 2003, was executed this month, reigniting the debate on whether capital punishment should be used in the United States.

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Amber McLaughlin, 49, had been convicted of stalking and killing an ex-girlfriend and then dumping her body near the Mississippi River in St. Louis. McLaughlin’s fate was sealed on Tuesday (3), when Republican Governor Mike Parson turned down a plea for clemency.

In 2003, long before the transition, McLaughlin, 29 at the time, was in a relationship with Beverly Guenther, 45. After they stopped dating, McLaughlin would show up at the St. Louis suburban office where Guenther worked, sometimes hidding inside the building, according to court records. Guenther obtained a restraining order, and officers occasionally escorted her to her car after work.

Beverly Guenther on a personal archive.

Guenther’s neighbors called the 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. Authorities said she was raped and then later stabbed multiple times with a steak knife.

According to the petition, the jury did not hear expert testimony about McLaughlin’s mental state at the time of Guenther’s murder. That testimony, her attorneys said, could have tipped the scales toward a life sentence by rebutting the prosecution’s claim that McLaughlin acted with brutality and particular depravity of mind, the only aggravating factor the jury found, which lead to the McLaughlin conviction of armed criminal action, first-degree murder and rape, but couldn’t decide between sentencing McLaughlin to the death row or life without parole. According to Missouri law, when that happens the judge is allowed to decide over the case by themself.

McLaughlin spoke with a spiritual advisor at her side as the fatal dose of pentobarbital was injected. McLaughlin took a few deep breaths, then closed her eyes. She was pronounced dead a few minutes later.

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

Amber McLaughlin, during transition, at 45 years old.

A database on the Death Penalty Information Center website shows that 1,558 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s. All but 17 of those sentenced to death were men. The center said there were no known previous cases of an openly transgender inmate being executed. McLaughlin began the transition about three years ago at Potosi Correctional Center.

The clemency petition cited McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard during the trial. She had feces rubbed on her face and a stun gun used on her when she was a child by foster parents, according to the petition. Also cited were a severe depression that resulted in several suicide attempts, both in childhood and adulthood.

The petition included reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that causes distress and other symptoms as a result of a disparity between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth. But McLaughlin’s gender identity “was not the main focus” of the clemency request, said her lawyer, Larry Komp.

“The jury deadlocked at the punishment phase of Amber’s trial, so the trial judge stepped in and imposed a death sentence. Missouri is one of only two states that allow judges to do this. Her life story was filled with abuse, trauma, mental illness, brain damage, and intellectual disability, all culminating in a horrible crime. Amber was deeply remorseful for her actions but the system showed her no mercy,” said Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist and spiritual adviser to people on death row, on social media.

Sister Prejean is one of many people online debating if capital punishment should remain or be abolished, including congressperson and civil activists.

“Many people wrote to oppose Amber’s execution,” said Laurence Komp, Supervisor of the Capital Habeas Unit from the Federal Public Defender, in an official statement the following day. “But in the end, [it] rested on the decision of one trial judge who sentenced Amber to death when the jury did not vote to impose the death penalty. It is difficult to comprehend how our fellow citizens were relegated to bystanders by a legal loophole.” they continued “It is troubling that a State that by its own acknowledgment often fails to protect abused and neglected children, like Amber, also fails to acknowledge that the profound childhood abuse and neglect suffered by Amber forever altered her ability to interact in this world and impacted her behavior at the time of Ms. Beverly Guenther’s murder,” continued Komp. “There were people in Amber’s life who tried to protect her, including teachers whose calls to children’s services were met with ambivalence. At a time when children experience the enchantment of the holiday season, it is difficult not to think of Amber as she was as a child, beaten, tased, dirty and hungry, and wonder how we, as a society, could not protect her. Amber immediately regretted her actions in killing Ms. Guenther and was tormented by the memory of what she had done. Amber expressed her sincere remorse within hours of Ms. Guenther’s death.”

Erika Atayde

(she/her, they/them) ADHD, Sephardic Travesti
Comics writer, audio-editor and director of podcasts and audiodramas, and independent journalist between countries. Beyond the Daily Planet you can find me ArcbeatlePress and "Muralha da Fonte".

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