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Judge Defends Sentence in First Execution of Transgender Inmate

Jan. 10, 2023, 10:21 PM

The Missouri state trial court judge who issued the death sentence in what became the country’s first execution of an openly transgender person said he was just following the law.

Now-retired St. Louis County Circuit Judge Steven Goldman told Bloomberg Law on Tuesday that Amber McLaughlin deserved the death sentence for murdering and raping her ex-girlfriend.

“First of all, it was a terrible, torturous type crime,” he said.

The Jan. 3 execution made headlines because McLaughlin was the first openly transgender person on death row to be put to death and also because her sentence was doled out by a judge not a jury. Missouri law allows a judge to make this determination when a jury can’t agree on a punishment.

The case raised questions about whether the uncommon Missouri law is constitutional. Indiana is the only other state with a similar statute that gives judges sole discretion when there’s a hung jury. In the interview, Goldman countered critics who said his ruling amounted to an end-run around the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to be judged by a jury of your peers.

“What I did was follow the law,” Goldman said.

“Circuit judges don’t really make the law, we just follow the law,” he said earlier.

Mitigating Circumstances

A jury convicted McLaughlin of rape, first-degree murder, and one count of armed criminal action for ambushing Beverly Guenther as she was leaving work after McLaughlin stalked and harassed Guenther for some time after their breakup.

“She lived in fear at the end of her life,” Goldman said. “It was a horrible crime. That’s why I gave the death penalty.”

Goldman retired in 2016 at the age of 70 after 28 years on the bench as a state trial court judge. Under Missouri law, judges can’t serve past that age.

A former prosecutor, Goldman was appointed to the 21st Judicial Circuit in 1988 and then retained by voters, according to YourMissouriJudges.org, a group that works to provide voters with information on the state’s judicial process.

Goldman said he helped draft the state law that allows judges to decide the punishment in death penalty cases when the jury is deadlocked.

Goldman acknowledged that McLaughlin had mitigating circumstances, including a history of child abuse, but he said they just didn’t rise to the level of offsetting the death penalty.

McLaughlin had asked Gov. Mike Parson (R) for clemency but was denied. In a statement after her execution, McLaughlin’s attorney Michele Law said “the conscience of the community should be an absolute requirement before an execution should proceed” but it was absent here.

—With assistance from Vivia Chen

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Wheeler in Washington at lwheeler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com