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Judges Play God Under Missouri Death Penalty Law

Jan. 4, 2023, 1:42 PM

You don’t have to be a death penalty opponent to feel disturbed by a system that lets the judge play executioner.

But that’s essentially what happened to Amber McLaughlin, who was put to death last night by the state of Missouri. Though the headlines blared that McLaughlin was the first transgender woman to be executed in the US, far more significant—and outrageous—is that a trial judge in St. Louis unilaterally decided her fate, making a mockery of the judicial system.

In 2006, a jury convicted McLaughlin—then known as Scott McLaughlin—of murder, but deadlocked on the penalty. Under Missouri law, a judge is allowed to render a sentence when there’s a hung jury—which is how St. Louis County circuit judge Steven Goldman came to impose the ultimate penalty on McLaughlin.

But before I go on, let me make one point perfectly clear: McLaughlin committed a horrendous crime. In 2003, McLaughlin raped, strangled, and knifed her ex-girlfriend Beverly Guenther to death, then dumped her body near the Mississippi River.

Though McLaughlin’s defenders have cited her low IQ of 82, history of childhood abuse, and poor defense at trial as extenuating circumstances, there’s no doubt the victim suffered terribly. On a gut level, I find it hard to be that sympathetic to McLaughlin.

Yet in so many ways, McLaughlin’s death sentence and execution strike me as a travesty of justice. Among the 27 states with death penalties, the vast majority require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty.

But somehow Missouri, along with Indiana, are the outliers, bestowing this colossal power when a jury is undecided at sentencing to one person: the trial judge.

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom why a trial judge or any one person should be given such power. Isn’t it a perversion of the jury system—our fundamental right to be judged by our peers—that a judge can usurp the proceedings?

Particularly so in McLaughlin’s case since the jurors seemed to have wrestled mightily with the charges and showed deep reluctance about imposing the death penalty.

Yet we have a judge who seemed cocksure of himself, eagerly filling in blanks with bold pronouncements in instances where the jurors saw nuance and complexity.

“The only aggravating circumstance [the jury] found was ‘depravity of mind,’ and so I found that also, and I just elaborated with what the jury said,” Judge Goldman, now retired, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently, adding, “I believe in the death penalty.”

‘End-Run Around a Jury’

Goldman, a former prosecutor, also helped draft the law that gave judges the right to decide punishment in death penalty cases in situations of jury deadlock, reports the Post-Dispatch.

Several retired Missouri judges were so troubled by the state law and Goldman’s action that they raised alarms. Led by former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff, they wrote to Gov. Mike Parson last month, asking that he commute McLaughlin’s sentence to life in prison.

Citing “a flaw in Missouri’s capital sentencing scheme” that gives a trial judge the ability to impose capital punishment in cases of jury deadlocks, the judges wrote: “This flaw is more pronounced in this case because the trial judge then relied upon aggravating circumstances specifically rejected by the jury. ... The trial judge did a complete end-run around a jury, where Mr. McLaughlin’s attorneys had persuaded at least one and maybe 11 jurors that death was not appropriate.”

Let that sink in: “a complete end-run around a jury.”

It was a serious indictment—not that Gov. Parson seemed to heed the warning, considering that he denied the stay of execution.

If there’s one thing we should take away from this whole sorry episode it’s that judges shouldn’t be allowed to nullify a jury and hijack our system of justice.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com