First Federal Hate Crime Conviction for Murder of a Transgender Person

Monday, Joshua Vallum was sentenced to 49 years in prison for the heinous 2015 murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson. The case marks the first time that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been used to prosecute a suspect for targeting a victim because they were transgender.

“A Mississippi man was sentenced to 49 years in prison on Monday for killing his transgender former girlfriend, a case the Justice Department said was the first involving violence against a transgender person to be prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Act,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Mercedes Williamson, the transgender woman Jason Vallum brutally murderedPhoto by Facebook.com

Joshua Vallum, a 29-year-old member of the Latin Kings gang, murdered 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson in May 2015 after Vallum ended their relationship because a friend learned of Williamson’s transgender identity. When they were dating, Vallum was fully aware Williamson was transgender, but kept that fact hidden from family and friends. The Justice Department said in a statement that Vallum killed Williamson because he “believed he was in danger” if other members of his gang were to find out he had been knowingly involved with a transgender woman.

Although Vallum and Williamson were no longer in contact after they broke up, when Vallum discovered his associate knew he had dated a trans woman, Vallum traveled to Williamson’s home in Alabama and convinced her to ride in his car with him to Vallum’s father’s home in Lucedale, Miss. There, according the the Justice Department, Vallum electrically shocked Williamson with a stun gun, then repeatedly stabbed her and struck her with a hammer until she died. After Vallum brutally stole Williamson’s life, he attempted to cover his tracks by trying to dispose of the murder weapons and other evidence linking him to the crime.

Vallum pleaded guilty to a state-level murder charge, for which he was sentenced to life in prison, as well as one count of violating 2009’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—making him the first person prosecuted for targeting a victim because they were transgender. Vallum had initially lied to law enforcement officials about the crime, first claiming that he killed Williamson upon first finding out she was transgender, then later admitting as part of his guilty plea that he knew of her identity while they were dating and would not have murdered her if she wasn’t transgender. On Monday, he was sentenced to an additional 49 years in prison under the federal hate crimes statute.

“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department statement. “The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”

Yet, many LGBTQ equality advocacy groups, activists and allies feel the case and sentencing surrounding Mercedes Williamson’s tragic murder also reflect the necessity of passing more inclusive and specific hate crimes legislation at state and federal levels.

“There is an epidemic of violence against transgender people, and particularly women of color, across the country,” said Rob Hill, the Mississippi state director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). “And yet today is the first time a perpetrator will be sentenced under federal hate crimes charges for killing a transgender person because that crime crossed a state line.”

Currently, 20 states—including Mississippi—still lack hate crimes laws safeguarding residents from violence perpetrated on the basis of victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity. The Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law over eight years ago, yet our nation remains plagued by ongoing, heinous crimes of anti-trans violence. Hundreds of transgender men and women are murdered in this country every year merely because of how they identify. The fact that it took until 2017 for our government to finally prosecute a perpetrator under the Matthew Shepard Act for anti-trans violence further highlights the dire need for the passage of federal hate crimes and non-discrimination legislation that would help protect all transgender and LGBQ citizens, regardless of which state they reside in, under the umbrella of our nation’s laws.