Unless a United States governor grants her clemency, Amber McLaughlin, 49, will become first openly transgender woman to be executed in the country. She’s on the schedule die by injection in the Midwestern state of Missouri on Tuesday for killing an ex-girlfriend in 2003.
McLaughlin’s attorney, Larry Komp, said no appeal is pending.
The clemency application would need to be approved by Missouri Republican Governor Mike Parson to be successful. It focuses on several issues, including McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health problemswhich the jury never heard during her trial.
A foster parent rubbed feces on her face when she was a toddler and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her, according to the leniency application. It says she suffers from depression and has made multiple suicide attempts.
The petition also includes reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that causes anxiety and other symptoms due to a difference between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth.
“We think Amber has shown incredible courage because I can tell you there is a lot of hate when it comes to that issue,” Komp, her attorney, said Monday. But, he added, McLaughlin’s sexual identity is “not the main focus” of the leniency application.
Parson’s spokesperson Kelli Jones said the leniency application review process is still ongoing.
According to the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center, there is no known case of an openly transgender inmate previously executed in the US. A friend in prison says she saw McLaughlin’s personality blossom during her sex change.
Before switching, McLaughlin was in a relationship with girlfriend Beverly Guenther. McLaughlin was supposed to show up at the suburban office in St. Louis, Missouri where 45-year-old Guenther worked, sometimes hiding in the building, according to court documents. Guenther was given a restraining order and police officers occasionally escorted her to her car after work.
Guenther’s neighbors called the police on the night of November 20, 2003, when she failed to return home. Officers went to the office building, where they found a broken knife handle and a trail of blood next to her car. 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 verdict. A court ordered a new hearing on the sentencing in 2016, but a federal appeals court has reinstated the death penalty in 2021.
One person Amber knew before she switched is Jessica Hicklin, 43, who served 26 years in prison for a drug-related murder in western Missouri in 1995. She was 16. Because of her age at the time of the crime, she was released in January 2022.
Hicklin, 43, began transitioning in prison and sued the Missouri Department of Corrections in 2016, challenging a policy that banned hormone therapy for detainees who did not receive it before they were imprisoned. She won the lawsuit in 2018 and became a mentor to other transgender inmates, including McLaughlin.
Although they were stuck together for about a decade, Hicklin said McLaughlin was so shy that they rarely interacted. But when McLaughlin started transitioning about three years ago, she turned to Hicklin for advice on things like mental healthcare and get help to ensure her safety in 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.
Gradually a friendship developed.
“We sat down once a week and had what I called girl talk,” Hicklin said. “She always had a smile and a joke with her dad. If you ever spoke to her, it was always with the father’s jokes.
McLaughlin still had insecurities, especially about her well-being, Hicklin said.
“Definitely a vulnerable person,” Hicklin said. “Absolutely afraid of being attacked or victimized, which is more common among transgender people [the] Department of Corrections.”
The only woman ever to be executed in Missouri was Bonnie B Heady, who was put to death on December 18, 1953, for kidnapping and murdering a six-year-old boy. Heady was executed in the gas chamber, side by side with the other kidnapper and murderer, Carl Austin Hall.
Nationally, 18 people were executed in 2022, including two in Missouri. Kevin Johnson, 37, was put to death on Nov. 29 for ambush-killing a police officer in Kirkwood, Missouri. Carmen Deck was executed in May for killing James and Zelma Long during a robbery of their home in De Soto, Missouri.
Another Missouri inmate, Leonard Taylor, will die on February 7 for the murder of his girlfriend and her three young children.