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Transgender Missouri Death Row Inmate Pleads For Clemency Ahead Of Scheduled Execution

Amber McLaughlin was convicted of raping and murdering ex-girlfriend Beverly Guenther in 2003 and was sentenced to death. She later transitioned in prison, and is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 3.

By Megan Carpentier
death row inmate Amber McLaughlin

A transgender woman in Missouri who was convicted of raping and murdering her ex-girlfriend before her transition and sentenced to death has appealed for clemency ahead of her scheduled execution.

Amber McLaughlin, 49, was convicted in 2006 of the rape and murder of Beverly Guenther, 45, on Nov. 20, 2003, St. Louis Public Radio (STLPR) reported. She transitioned in prison after a 2018 court ruling in a case brought by another transgender inmate allowed all incarcerated people access to hormonal therapy. (However, she has not legally transitioned and the state still refers to her by her deadname in legal filings — including in September, when it set the date for her execution, the Associated Press reported at the time.)

Court records reviewed by Oxygen.com reveal that McLaughlin, then 30, had been in an on-and-off relationship with Guenther for some time preceding her murder but the couple had permanently broken up in September 2003. McLaughlin then began surveilling Guenther's home, repeatedly calling her and showing up at her place of employment.

On Oct. 27, 2003, Guenther's neighbor witnessed McLaughlin burglarizing her house and called the police, according to court documents. Police arrived, gave chase and ultimately found the suspect with a number of items McLaughlin claimed did not actually belong to Guenther. The items over which McLaughlin claimed ownership included a pool cue, a tool box, an RC car, clothes, a stereo, holiday decorations, DVDs and VHS tapes, but police also found a make-up kit, a cookie tin, a robe, some deodorant, a toothbrush and some samples of Lexapro in the car. (McLaughlin's doctor testified at the sentencing hearing that he'd prescribed McLaughlin Paxil, a different drug, to treat depression and anxiety before the murder.)

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McLaughlin was arrested for the burglary, released on bond and had an arraignment scheduled for Nov. 18. Guenther subsequently received an ex parte restraining order against her ex, and a hearing for a full restraining order was scheduled for the morning of Nov. 21, 2003.

McLaughlin's brother's roommate testified that McLaughlin had come to the home in the early evening of Nov. 20, 2003, said, "I’m f--king killing that b--ch," because McLaughlin did not want to be incarcerated, and then left.

Guenther, alone in the office (from which McLaughlin had been barred after the burglary), left work at 6 p.m. that night. She was never seen alive again. Her neighbors called police after she didn't arrive home after work.

Police found her truck parked outside the office and followed an increasingly bloody trail from there to an empty parking spot, finding a broken knife along the way. 

McLaughlin was seen at the brother's home, covered in blood, around 7:30 p.m., washed up and left again. McLaughlin called a female acquaintance after midnight, claiming to have a flat tire, but she refused to help. McLaughlin instead arrived at a nephew's home around 7 a.m., scratched and filthy, and ultimately prevailed on the female friend to drive to Walmart to buy bleach to resolve an alleged mildew smell in the car with the flat tire.

McLaughlin was arrested at the hospital that evening, and ultimately led officers to Guenther's body, which had been disposed of on a riverbank near McLaughlin's brother's home. Her dress and bra were pulled up to her neck and she wasn't wearing any underwear; her feet were tied together. An autopsy revealed she'd been beaten around the face, nearly asphyxiated, restrained by her wrists, raped and stabbed seven times (including four defensive wounds on her arms and hands). She died of a stab wound to the neck that sliced her carotid artery. Numerous other injuries were inflicted after her death.

McLaughlin's car was positive for Guenther's blood, despite the bleach poured in it and several sections of missing upholstery. McLaughlin's DNA was found in Guenther's rape kit.

McLaughlin — who had a criminal history including for tampering, sexual assault, forgery, third degree assault and felony non-support — was charged with first-degree murder, forcible rape, and two counts of armed criminal action, one arising from the murder charge and the other arising from the rape charge. 

After being convicted, the jury was asked to consider McLaughlin's low IQ, history of child abuse and documented mental health issues, though the expert who was supposed to testify about McLaughlin's mental health at the time of the murder was withdrawn by the defense due to the discovery of data he'd falsified. The jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on the appropriate punishment and, in the absence of that decision, the judge sentenced McLaughlin to death.

McLaughlin was subsequently convicted of burglarizing Guenther's home the month before her murder.

In 2016, a federal court ruled that McLaughlin was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, citing faulty jury instructions and the lawyers' failure to call the expert witness to testify about McLaughlin's mental state at the time of the murders, according to the AP. But a federal appeals court reinstated the death sentence in August 2021, stating the testimony of another expert witness likely would not have affected the outcome of the sentencing and overturning the decision about the jury instructions.

A death warrant was issued for McLaughlin in September, according to St. Louis CBS affiliate KMOV, and her execution was scheduled for Jan. 4.

Her defense counsel filed a clemency petition on Monday, citing her history of child abuse, her developmental and psychological problems and the fact that a single judge imposed the death sentence after the jury was unable to do so, according to the St. Louis Dispatch.

"People should know I'm mentally ill," McLaughlin told the paper in an interview on Monday.

She told STLPR in another interview that she feels bad about raping and murdering Guenther.

“I’m sorry," she told the station. "I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“I think if I’d been my true self, I probably would not have been there,” she added.

She called being scheduled for execution "stressful."

Her lawyer, federal public defender Larry Komp, expressed his opposition to the death penalty in general but said he hoped in particular that McLaughlin would not become the first openly transgender person executed in the United States.

"Amber has shown great courage in embracing who she is as a transgender woman in spite of the potential for people reacting with hate, so I admire her display of courage,” he told the AP.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is reviewing her clemency request and is scheduled to meet with McLaughlin's lawyers on Tuesday, the news agency reported. Parson's office has not granted a single clemency request in a death penalty case since taking office in 2018, the St. Louis Dispatch reported. His spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, promised an extensive review.

"The governor then considers the matter and makes a decision when he is prepared to do so," she told the paper. "These are not decisions that the governor takes lightly and the process is underway as it relates to the execution scheduled for January."

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