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Missouri executes transgender woman for murdering her ex-girlfriend in 2003

 Amber McLaughlin was found guilty of murdering an ex-girlfriend.
Jeremy Weis
Amber McLaughlin was found guilty of murdering an ex-girlfriend.

At a prison in Bonne Terre on Tuesday, the state of Missouri carried out the first execution of an openly transgender woman in the history of the United States.

Amber McLaughlin, 49, was put to death for the murder of Beverly Guenther. McLaughlin, then known as Scott, raped and stabbed Guenther, 45, twenty years ago in Earth City, Missouri, before dumping her body in the city of St. Louis.

McLaughlin's final moments were spent in a small, white room in the state’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Corrections Center. She was accompanied by a spiritual advisor, Lauren Bennett, who sat by her side when a five milligram dose of pentobarbital was administered at 6:39 p.m. What appeared to be the outline of a strap used to secure McLaughlin to a hospital-like bed could be seen beneath the white linen under which she lay.

Bennett appeared to speak and sing to McLaughlin after the injection. McLaughlin breathed heavily a few times before succumbing to the drugs. The official time of death was 6:51 p.m.

McLaughlin’s final written statement was, "I am sorry for what I did. I am a loving and caring person." This morning McLaughlin was served a final meal of a cheeseburger, french fries, a strawberry milkshake and peanut M&Ms.

The execution represents the first time a woman has been put to death in Missouri since 1953, when the federal government executed Bonnie Brown Heady for kidnapping and murdering a child.

The younger brother of McLaughlin’s victim, Al Wedepohl, 58, witnessed the execution. He remembers Guenther as "the best sister anybody could ask for," a woman whose life was taken from her just as she was reinventing herself after her marriage collapsed.

Provided by Al Wedepohl

"After the depression of the divorce, she was finally starting to bring herself back on track," Wedepohl says. Guenther hadn't worked when she was married and the house she lived in hadn’t belonged to her, but Wedepohl recalls his sister in the wake of the divorce establishing an independent life. She bought a car. She bought a house.

"She was really turning her life around," Wedepohl says. "It took a few years, but she finally got herself back together."

Then she met McLaughlin.

"The worst mistake she ever made," Wedepohl says.

Wedepohl met McLaughlin in 2003 and described his sister's murderer as manipulative, controlling and "very abusive, physically and mentally."

Wedepohl recalls a get-together Guenther had arranged so her brother and sister-in-law could meet McLaughlin, but at the gathering McLaughlin walked right past Wedepohl and his wife without saying a word.

The relationship between Guenther and McLaughlin devolved into abuse. When Guenther tried to end it, McLaughlin stalked and harassed her, burglarizing her home in October 2003.

"[McLaughlin] had this thing that was like a fatal attraction. It was either you'd be with me, or you're not," Wedepohl says. "That was even more messed up because he was living with someone else."

In the months before her murder, Guenther filed a restraining order against McLaughlin and, according to court filings, said in her victim impact statement that McLaughlin "threatened her and her friends” and “showed up at her job and watched 'everything' that she did."

On November 20, 2003, McLaughlin abducted Guenther outside the office where she worked. McLaughlin raped and stabbed her to death before leaving her lifeless body in the Patch neighborhood in south St. Louis, near the banks of the Mississippi River.

McLaughlin had been due in court on stalking charges the very next day.

After a four-day trial in 2006, the jury in the case was unanimous that McLaughlin had murdered Guenther, but they couldn't agree on whether the punishment should be life in prison or death. With the jury deadlocked, the decision was left to St. Louis County Circuit Judge Steven Goldman. He ruled that McLaughlin deserved to die.

Court transcripts show that Goldman thought the "depravity of mind" with which McLaughlin killed Guenther ultimately warranted death.

"I think that Beverly Guenther lived at the end a tortured life, and she died a tortured death, and this was at your hands," Goldman said, addressing McLaughlin. "You made her worst fears come true when you killed her."

More than a decade later, McLaughlin was incarcerated in Potosi Correctional Center in 2018 when another inmate there, Jessica Hicklin, won a landmark lawsuit allowing transgender incarcerated Missourians access to gender-affirming care.

Hicklin previously told the Riverfront Times that because of her success in the courts, she became a mentor to other transgender inmates. One day, Hicklin was introduced to McLaughlin for the first time as Amber.

"Now, this makes sense," Hicklin recalled thinking. "I've known you for a long time, you didn't necessarily seem very comfortable in your skin, and now you're smiling."

McLaughlin said in December that she started wearing women's clothing around age 12, though she had to do so away from her parents and guardians.

"I knew then this is what I wanted to be," she said. "But I had to always do it secretly."

The brother of McLaughlin’s victim, Wedepohl, says that he's been bothered by the recent focus on McLaughlin's identity as transgender woman. He feels that his sister has been entirely lost in the onslaught of news coverage given to McLaughlin’s case in the past month.

He says that he doesn't want to belittle anyone, but he feels like McLaughlin's transition is a "ploy.” He adds, “It seems like it's pretty premeditated to try to get out of the death penalty."

McLaughlin's attorneys and other supporters lobbied until the end for her life to be spared. They say that her gender identity should have no bearing on her case.

Hicklin, who was released from prison earlier this year, has been outspoken in her support for sparing McLaughlin's life. She stressed in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio that people have been hurt by McLaughlin, and that an appeal for her life to be spared can't minimize that. However, she added, "At the end of the day, whatever mistake Amber has made, it does not warrant taking her life …We can't set the example of retributive killings."

McLaughlin's attorneys had hoped her death sentence might be overturned because it was Judge Goldman who handed down a sentence of death, not the jury.

"McLaughlin's trial jury did not recommend the death penalty — it was imposed by the trial judge," McLaughlin's attorneys wrote in a clemency application to Gov. Mike Parson. Only Missouri and Indiana, they wrote, allow a trial judge to impose the death penalty after a jury deadlock.

In 2016, a judge vacated McLaughlin's death sentence, changing it to life in prison. However, in 2021, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision and reinstated the death penalty. On September 19, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a warrant of execution in the name of Scott McLaughlin.

McLaughlin's supporters have pointed to prolonged, egregious abuse McLaughlin suffered as a child. McLaughlin had been placed in foster care as a child after being exposed to alcohol in the womb and suffering abuse as a toddler. After a stint in foster care, McLaughlin ended up in a “house of horrors,” according to her attorneys, with her adoptive father, a police officer, tasing her and using his nightstick on her. He also routinely locked the house's refrigerator and cabinets to withhold food from children in his care.

Teachers reported calling in multiple complaints that McLaughlin was abused and neglected. A childhood IQ test showed her in the “borderline or very low range.”

In the clemency application, McLaughlin's attorneys wrote that she "never had a chance. She was failed by the institutions, individuals and interventions that should have protected her, and her abusers obstructed the care she so desperately needed."

Among those lobbying for McLaughlin's life to be spared were U.S. Representatives Cori Bush (D-St. Louis) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Kansas City). They wrote in a letter to Parson, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done."

In a letter to the governor, a group of clergy called Guenther's murder "a tragic waste of life," writing, "We strongly believe … society can adequately protect human life without capital punishment."

Any hope for clemency was dashed this morning around 10 a.m. when the governor's office issued a statement saying that McLaughlin's execution would go through. Like the Supreme Court, Parson used the name “Scott McLaughlin” in issuing the order. McLaughlin also signed her final written statement in that name as well.

"McLaughlin’s conviction and sentence remains," Parson's statement said in part. "Ms. Guenther's family and loved ones deserve peace."

Missouri Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said that approximately 51 protesters were present at Bonne Terre to protest McLaughlin's execution.

In addition to state witnesses and members of the media, two individuals representing Guenther and two there at the request of McLaughlin witnessed the execution. None of the witnesses chose to speak to the press.

This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund as part of its series Shadow of Death, which considers St. Louis County’s use of the death penalty.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Ryan Krull