A Mississippi man was sentenced to 49 years in prison Monday in the first-ever federal hate crime conviction for the murder of a transgender woman.
Joshua Vallum, 29, was convicted of murdering his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend Mercedes Williamson in May 2015. Prosecutors said that Vallum had planned Williamson’s murder after a friend had discovered she was transgender. He persuaded her to get into his car in Alabama, and then drove her to his parent’s house in Lucedale, Mississippi, where he used a stun-gun on her, stabbed her and beat her to death.
Vallum was a member of the Latin Kings gang, and testified he was scared that gang members would kill him if they discovered he had dated a transgender woman, according to a statement from the Justice Department.
“The taking of a human life because a person has a particular gender identity is particularly heinous and cannot be tolerated in an enlightened society,” U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. said in his sentencing. Guirola also fined Vallum $20,000, but declined to give him a life sentence, citing abuse he suffered as a child.
It was a case closely watched by LGBTQ advocates, particularly those who were skeptical about whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions would vigorously enforce federal hate crime protections for those who suffered violence or discrimination due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Vallum was prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009 and expanded existing federal hate crimes law to protect LGBTQ and disabled people. While in Congress, Sessions opposed the bill and worked to defeat it arguing that it would just prosecute “thought crimes.”
In a statement in response to Vallum’s sentencing, Sessions vowed that the Justice Department would “continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”
“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” Sessions said.
Williamson was one of 21 transgender people murdered in 2015. In 2016, 27 transgender people were murdered. In 2017 so far, at least 10 transgender people have been murdered, according to the Human Rights Campaign.