Amber McLaughlin transitioned on death row. Now she faces execution
On November 20, 2003, 45-year-old Beverly Guenther was abducted outside the office where she worked in Earth City, Missouri. She was stabbed and raped, her lifeless body left in the Patch neighborhood in south St. Louis, near the banks of the Mississippi River.
About a month prior, a 30-year-old then known as Scott McLaughlin had been charged with burglarizing Guenther’s Moscow Mills home. The two had been a couple until that summer, but Guenther had told others in recent months that she’d come to fear McLaughlin. She had taken out a restraining order.
Soon after Guenther’s neighbors reported her missing, police interrogated McLaughlin, who led them to Guenther’s body.
After a four-day-long trial in 2006, the jury found McLaughlin guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge ruled McLaughlin’s crime warranted death. McLaughlin is now scheduled to die on Tuesday, January 3 — the second in a trio of St. Louis County defendants receiving execution dates this winter. Kevin Johnson was killed November 29, and Leonard Taylor is scheduled for Tuesday, February 7.
All three were prosecuted by former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who saw 23 people sentenced to death during his long tenure. Voters ousted him in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, but that doesn’t change the fate of the people he prosecuted. Barring a last-minute reprieve, McLaughlin will be McCulloch’s 12th execution.
But McLaughlin’s story is different from any of the four other St. Louis County people on death row, and the 11 already executed.
When McLaughlin arrived in Potosi Correctional Center, Jessica Hicklin had already been there for over a decade. At first, Hicklin says she only knew McLaughlin from a distance as someone “very full of anxiety, scattered.”
Then, in 2018, Hicklin won a landmark transgender-rights case against the Missouri Department of Corrections, allowing her and other transgender inmates access to hormone therapy.
“As a result of that [case], I became a sort of mom to a lot of girls who were coming out and trying to figure out how to have coming-out conversations and how to get access to hormone therapy,” says Hicklin, who was released from prison earlier this year after serving 26 years.
One day another inmate introduced Hicklin to Amber McLaughlin.
Hicklin says she remembers thinking to herself, “Now, this makes sense. I’ve known you for a long time, you didn’t necessarily seem very comfortable in your skin, and now you’re smiling.”
“I didn’t really come to know Amber until, well, Amber became Amber,” Hicklin says.
In a brief phone interview, McLaughlin says that when she was around 12 years old she started wearing women’s clothing, though she had to do so away from her parents and guardians.
“I knew then this is what I wanted to be,” she says. “But I had to always do it secretly.”
McLaughlin describes her upbringing as “not always good. My adoptive parents were mean and strict.”
Court records indicate McLaughlin was in foster care for a time and that her adoptive father, a police officer, paddled her with what the family called a “board of education.” He also used his night stick and taser on her.
When McLaughlin moved out on her own, she kept her desire to dress like a woman secret. With her own place, she says, she “could be that way as much as I wanted to.”
Legal experts say it’s uncertain how, or even if, McLaughlin’s gender will have any effect on the late-stage appeals her attorneys are now bringing. If McLaughlin is executed in January, she would be the first woman put to death by Missouri since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Hicklin, who worked for a paralegal for decades while incarcerated, says that whether McLaughlin’s gender affects her remaining appeals depends on the judge.
“I cannot fairly say that I know it’s in a judge’s head,” she says. “I can just say I’ve seen some really horrible opinions where judges have gone out of their way to make sure that somebody’s being trans is made relevant to an otherwise irrelevant issue.”
What likely is relevant, says McLaughlin’s attorney Larry Komp, is that McLaughlin is “borderline” intellectually disabled. At her 2006 trial, a psychologist testified that McLaughlin had an IQ of 82. Hicklin calls her friend “a very simple person,” adding, “I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.”
Over the phone, McLaughlin conducts her side of the conversation in short, soft-spoken replies.
About the death penalty, she says, “It’s cruel and unusual punishment. Nobody deserves to be executed like this.”
About the murder of Beverly Guenther, she says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
She adds, “I think if I’d been my true self, I probably would not have been there.”
When asked what it’s like to know the date she is scheduled to die, McLaughlin says, “It’s stressful, it’s ...” She trails off into a long silence.
During the sentencing phase of McLaughlin’s 2006 trial, a psychiatrist named Keith Caruso was supposed to present mental-health evidence regarding McLaughlin’s state of mind at the time of murder.
However, in what attorneys now term the “Dr. Caruso fiasco,” the psychiatrist told defense attorneys that during cross-examination in a previous trial, allegations that he’d falsified research data had come to light.
Believing they would have to disclose this, the defense opted not to call Caruso as a witness. Komp says it was a devastating decision. There was no expert testimony regarding McLaughlin’s mental health — which the jury had been told would be integral to the case for life in prison instead of death.
“They made that promise to the jury,” Komp says. “That was the majority of their opening statement at the penalty phase. And then they broke that promise.”
Furthermore, Komp says the academic dishonesty in Caruso’s past didn’t have to be disclosed in the first place.
“The reason for not calling him was based on ignorance, a misunderstanding of Missouri law,” Komp says.
The jury deadlocked on the question of death, leaving the decision to Judge Steven Goldman, who ruled that McLaughlin deserved to die.
Last week, Komp says he read with great interest the Missouri Supreme Court’s denial of a stay of execution for Kevin Johnson, who was executed two days later. Surprisingly, Komp found a lot in that ruling to be optimistic about in McLaughlin’s appeal.
The court’s ruling placed emphasis on the fact that it was the jury, not the prosecutor, who handed down the death penalty. "In the end it was the jury — not the prosecutor — that found Johnson guilty of murder in the first degree; it was the jury that found the three statutory aggravators; it was the jury that weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors; and it was the jury that found death to be the appropriate sentence," the court wrote.
“If you’re gonna rely on a jury,” Komp says, “then I don’t have a jury sentence. I have a judge that came in when the jury couldn’t do it. That’s a huge distinction.”
Monica Obradovic provided additional reporting for this story.
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