In May 2015, Mississippi gang member Joshua Vallum decided to murder his ex-girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson, after a friend learned that Williamson was a transgender teenage girl. According to CNN, he initially claimed to have killed Williamson in “a panic” after learning that she was a transgender woman, but he later changed his story after pleading guilty to state murder charges — he had hidden Williamson’s status from friends and family while they dated and committed the crime because he feared reprisals if anyone learned about his ex-girlfriend’s gender identity. Vallum admitted that he would not have killed Williamson if she had not been transgender.
Vallum, who took Mercedes from her house in Alabama, received a life sentence in Mississippi, but because the state has no law on bias crimes committed because of gender identity, the Justice Department charged Vallum under a federal hate crime law and secured a 49-year sentence, and $20,000 fine, for Vallum. It’s the Department of Justice’s first successful prosecution of the federal hate crimes law — codified by the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (federal Hate Crimes Act).
“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”
Rob Hill, the Mississippi state director for the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, said the case showed how far Mississippi and many other states have to go on the issue of bias crimes.
“There is an epidemic of violence against transgender people, and particularly women of color, across the country,” Mr. Hill said. “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.”