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Amber McLaughlin set to become first openly transgender woman executed in the U.S.

Amber McLaughlin, 49, will become the first openly transgender woman executed in the U.S., Missouri Governor Mike Parson has confirmed. She is scheduled to die by injection Tuesday for killing a former girlfriend in 2003.

Parson announced that the execution would proceed as planned in a statement issued by the governor's office, which rejected a request to grant clemency that was submitted by McLaughlin's attorneys last month.

"McLaughlin's conviction and sentence remains after multiple, thorough examinations of Missouri law. McLaughlin stalked, raped, and murdered Ms. Guenther. McLaughlin is a violent criminal," Parson said. "Ms. Guenther's family and loved ones deserve peace. The State of Missouri will carry out McLaughlin's sentence according to the Court's order and deliver justice."

McLaughlin's attorney, Larry Komp, said there are no court appeals pending. An online petition urging Parson to stop the execution had garnered more than 5,500 of its requested 6,400 signatures as of Tuesday morning.

Attorneys submitted an application for executive clemency to the governor on Dec. 12, asking Parson to commute McLaughlin's sentence to life and noting that she was not given the death penalty in a trial by jury. When the jury deadlocked on punishment during her trial, a St. Louis county judge instead determined McLaughlin's sentence. As the application states, Missouri is one of only two U.S. states, along with Indiana, that allow trial judges to impose death penalty sentences in the event of a deadlocked jury.

The clemency request focused on several issues, including McLaughlin's traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard in her trial. A foster parent rubbed feces in her face when she was a toddler and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her, according to the clemency petition. It says she suffers from depression and attempted suicide multiple times.

There is no known case of an openly transgender inmate being executed in the U.S. before, according to the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center. A friend in prison says she saw McLaughlin's personality blossom during her gender transition.

Execution Transgender Inmate
This photo provided by the Federal Public Defender Office shows death row inmate Amber McLaughlin. Jeremy S. Weis/Federal Public Defender Office via AP, File

Before transitioning, McLaughlin was in a relationship with girlfriend Beverly Guenther. McLaughlin would show up at the suburban St. Louis office where the 45-year-old Guenther worked, sometimes hiding inside the building, according to court records. Guenther obtained a restraining order, and police officers occasionally escorted her to her car after work.

Guenther's neighbors called police the night she was killed, Nov. 20, 2003, after she failed to return home. Officers went to the office building, where they found a broken knife handle near her car and a trail of blood. A day later, McLaughlin led police to a location near the Mississippi River in St. Louis, where Guenther's body had been dumped. It was later determined that Guenther had been raped and stabbed to death in St. Louis County.

McLaughlin was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006. A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death after a jury deadlocked on the sentence. A court in 2016 ordered a new sentencing hearing, but a federal appeals court panel reinstated the death penalty in 2021.

One person who knew McLaughlin before she transitioned is Jessica Hicklin, 43, who spent 26 years in prison for a drug-related killing in western Missouri in 1995. She was 16. Because of her age when the crime occurred, she was granted release in January 2022.

Hicklin began transitioning while in prison and in 2016 sued the Missouri Department of Corrections, challenging a policy that prohibited hormone therapy for inmates who weren't receiving it before being incarcerated. She won the lawsuit in 2018 and became a mentor to other transgender inmates, including McLaughlin.

Though imprisoned together for around a decade, Hicklin said McLaughlin was so shy they rarely interacted. But as McLaughlin began transitioning about three years ago, she turned to Hicklin for guidance on issues such as mental health counseling and getting help to ensure her safety inside 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.

In the process, a friendship developed.

"We would sit down once a week and have what I referred to as girl talk," Hicklin said. "She always had a smile and a dad joke. If you ever talked to her, it was always with the dad jokes."

They also discussed the challenges a transgender inmate faces in a male prison — things like how to obtain feminine items, dealing with rude comments, and staying safe.

McLaughlin still had insecurities, especially about her well-being, Hicklin said.

"Definitely a vulnerable person," Hicklin said. "Definitely afraid of being assaulted or victimized, which is more common for trans folks in Department of Corrections."

The only woman ever executed in Missouri was Bonnie B. Heady, put to death on Dec. 18, 1953, for kidnapping and killing a 6-year-old boy. Heady was executed in the gas chamber, side by side with the other kidnapper and killer, Carl Austin Hall.

Nationally, 18 people were executed in 2022, including two in Missouri. Kevin Johnson, 37, was put to death Nov. 29 for the ambush killing of a Kirkwood, Missouri, police officer. Carmen Deck was executed in May for killing James and Zelma Long during a robbery at their home in De Soto, Missouri.

Another Missouri inmate, Leonard Taylor, is scheduled to die Feb. 7 for killing his girlfriend and her three young children.

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