Amber McLaughlin became the first openly transgender person to be executed in the United States when she died by lethal injection in Missouri on Tuesday.
Her execution ignited controversy, with criminal justice reform advocates rightly decrying the circumstances of her sentencing.
McLaughlin, who began transitioning in prison a few years ago, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006 in the killing of her ex-girlfriend, Beverly Guenther. A jury, however, failed to reach an agreement on a punishment, rejecting three out of the four aggravating circumstances presented by prosecutors that would legally justify a death sentence.
Despite a hung jury, the trial judge sentenced McLaughlin to death. As Reason noted, if a jury is deadlocked in federal sentencing trials or in most states with the death penalty, the defendant receives life in prison. But two states — Missouri and Indiana — allow a judge to impose a death sentence with a deadlocked jury.
McLaughlin won a federal appeal of her sentence in 2016, successfully arguing that the judge overreached in superseding the deadlocked jury to issue a death sentence. The judge in that appeal also found that McLaughlin’s lawyers provided "ineffective assistance" by failing to present medical evidence about her history of mental health issues during the sentencing trial.
But a federal appeals court overturned that judge’s ruling in 2021, teeing up McLaughlin’s state-sanctioned death yet again.
In a last-ditch effort to stave off her execution, a group of retired judges from Missouri submitted a letter last month to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office, denouncing the judge in McLaughlin’s original case for taking the unilateral step to have her put to death. The letter asked Parson, a Republican, to commute McLaughlin’s sentence to life in prison without parole.
"A jury ... is the voice of the community in which the crime occurred — and that voice where Beverly Guenther was murdered said that the State did not sustain its burden to merit a death sentence," the retired judges wrote.
McLaughlin "was sentenced to death via a flaw in Missouri’s capital sentencing scheme," they wrote, adding that the procedure "removes the life-or-death decision from the jury when the jury cannot vote unanimously for death, and places that awesome power in the hands of one individual."
Ultimately, Parson, who has demonstrated questionable views on violence, used his awesome powers to reject calls to commute McLaughlin’s sentence, leading to Tuesday’s execution.
I want to be clear: The point here is not that McLaughlin was wrongly convicted of murder, or that she shouldn’t have faced consequences for Guenther's death. The point is, the defense team in her murder trial failed her by not adequately detailing her mental health history to jurors. And that Missouri and Indiana laws giving undeserving individuals the power to determine who lives and who dies must be reformed.