Missouri is due Tuesday to execute Amber McLaughlin, a transgender woman convicted of a 2003 murder, who unsuccessfully pleaded for clemency from the governor in part because the jury at her trial did not vote for a death sentence.
If it were to take place, McLaughlin’s execution – the first in the United States this year – would be unusual: executions of women in the United States are already rare, with only 17 executions since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court United States reinstated the death penalty after a brief suspension, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But McLaughlin would also be the first openly transgender person executed in the United States, the nonprofit organization said.
McLaughlin, 49, and his lawyers had petitioned Republican Gov. Mike Parson for clemency, asking him to commute his death sentence. Besides the fact that a jury could not agree on the death penalty, they say, McLaughlin showed genuine remorse and struggled with developmental disabilities, mental health issues and a history of childhood trauma. .
But the execution will continue as planned, Parson’s office said in a statement Tuesday. The family and loved ones of his victim, Beverly Guenther, “deserve peace,” the statement said.
“The State of Missouri will serve McLaughlin’s sentence as ordered by the Court,” Parson said, “and do justice.”
McLaughlin was sentenced to death for Guenther’s murder in November 2003, according to court records.
The two were previously a couple, but they had separated at the time of the murder, and Guenther had received a protective order against McLaughlin after he was arrested for burgling Guenther’s home.
Several weeks later, while the order was in effect, McLaughlin waited for Guenther outside the victim’s workplace, court records show. McLaughlin repeatedly stabbed and raped Guenther, prosecutors argued at trial, pointing in part to blood spatter in the parking lot and in Guenther’s truck.
A jury found McLaughlin guilty of first-degree murder, forcible rape and felony action with a weapon, court records show.
But when it came to sentencing, the jury was deadlocked.
Most US states that have the death penalty require a jury to vote unanimously to recommend or impose the death penalty, but Missouri does not. Under state law, in cases where a jury is unable to agree on the death penalty, the judge decides between life imprisonment without parole or death. McLaughlin’s trial judge imposed the death sentence.
If Parson were to grant clemency, McLaughlin’s attorneys argued, he would not have overturned the will of the jury, as the jury could not agree on a capital punishment.
That, however, was just one of many reasons McLaughlin’s lawyers said Parson should grant him clemency, according to the petition submitted to the governor.
In addition to the question of his deadlocked jury, McLaughlin’s attorneys pointed out to his mental health issues, as well as his history of childhood trauma. McLaughlin was “consistently diagnosed with borderline intellectual disability” and “universally diagnosed with brain damage as well as fetal alcohol syndrome,” the petition states.
McLaughlin was “abandoned” by her mother and placed in the foster care system, and in one placement she had “feces stuffed in her face,” according to the petition.
She later suffered more abuse and trauma, including being shocked by her adoptive father, the petition says, and struggled with depression that led to “multiple suicide attempts.”
At trial, McLaughlin’s jury did not hear expert evidence about his mental state at the time of Guenther’s murder, the petition says. That testimony, his lawyers said, could have tipped the scales toward a life sentence by supporting the mitigating factors cited by the defense and rebutting the prosecution’s claim that McLaughlin acted with depravity of mind – that his actions were particularly brutal or “despicably vile” – the only aggravating circumstance retained by the jury.
A federal judge in 2016 overturned McLaughlin’s death sentence due to ineffective counsel, court records show, citing his attorneys’ failure to present such expert testimony. This decision, however, was later overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
McLaughlin’s execution “would expose every flaw in the justice system and would be a great injustice on many levels,” his attorney, Larry Komp, told CNN.
“It would continue the systemic failures that existed throughout Amber’s life where no intervention took place to stop her and intercede to protect her as a child and teenager,” Komp said. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong for her.”