1st Man Prosecuted For Federal Hate Crime Targeting Transgender Victim Gets 49 Years

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 9:46 pm

A federal court in Mississippi handed down a 49-year prison sentence on Monday to Joshua Brandon Vallum, the first person prosecuted under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act for targeting a victim because of gender identity.

Vallum had pleaded guilty last year to the 2015 assault and murder of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old transgender girl whom he says he once dated.

"Crimes motivated by hate have devastating effects on the victims, their families and community but also leave a blemish on our society as a whole," Christopher Freeze, special agent in charge of the FBI's Jackson Division, said in a statement.

The Justice Department says it's the first case "involving a victim targeted because of gender identity" prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — a law that was expanded in 2009 to cover victims attacked because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

The federal case itself moved quickly.

Charged on Dec. 14, 2016, Vallum pleaded guilty just one week later. He faced a sentence of up to life in prison, though U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. "heeded a lesser sentence suggested in a plea agreement between defense attorneys and prosecutors, citing Vallum's neglected childhood and other issues," according to The Associated Press.

Vallum is already serving a life sentence for the same incident, having pleaded guilty to murder last July in a case brought by the state of Mississippi. BuzzFeed News reports the state does not have its own hate crimes law on the books.

Here is how the Justice Department lays out Vallum's crime:

"During his plea hearing, Vallum admitted that he had a consensual sexual relationship with Williamson and that he knew Williamson was transgender. During his romantic relationship with Williamson, Vallum kept the sexual nature of the relationship, as well as that Williamson was transgender, secret from his family, friends, and other members of the Latin Kings and Queens Nation gang to which he belonged. After Vallum terminated his romantic and sexual relationship with Williamson, he had no contact with her until May 2015.

"Vallum admitted, as part of his guilty plea, that on May 28, 2015, he decided to kill Williamson after learning that a friend had discovered Williamson was transgender. Vallum believed he would be in danger if other Latin Kings members found out that he had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with a transgender woman. On May 29, 2015, Vallum located Williamson at her residence in Alabama and used false pretenses to lure Williamson into his car so he could drive her to Mississippi. Vallum drove Williamson to his father's residence in Lucedale, Mississippi. Vallum admitted that he then used a stun gun to electrically shock Williamson in the chest, repeatedly stabbed Williamson, and struck Williamson with a hammer until she died."

That summary contradicts an account initially offered and retracted by Vallum, who claimed at first to have "killed Williamson in a panic after discovering Williamson was transgender," the Justice Department says.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions applauded the result of the case, which was brought just weeks before his tenure began.

"Today's sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals," he said. "The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal court in Mississippi yesterday sentenced Joshua Vallum to 49 years in prison for the murder of Mercedes Williamson, a transgender woman.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is the first case prosecuted under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that involves a victim targeted because of their gender identity. Phyllis Gerstenfeld is a professor of criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus.

PHYLLIS GERSTENFELD: Under the federal definition, a hate crime is a criminal act that is motivated at least in part by the victim's race, religion, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.

CORNISH: She says prosecuting any sort of hate crime is difficult, let alone one involving gender identity.

GERSTENFELD: You have to prove the offender's motive. And proving motive is a really difficult thing. Motive is often very subjective, so prosecutors often just don't want to touch it at all.

CORNISH: But in Mississippi, prosecutors got lucky. Vallum had had a relationship with Williamson, and he admitted that he killed her to keep his fellow gang members from finding out about it.

SHAPIRO: Professor Gerstenfeld says that violence against transgender people is one of the more common hate crimes.

GERSTENFELD: So a prosecution like this can set a good example that might give prosecutors the confidence to go forward with these cases.

CORNISH: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has released a statement applauding the result of the case. He said the sentencing quote, "reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals."

SHAPIRO: He also said the Justice Department will continue its efforts to quote, "vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias-motivated crimes." Some transgender activists say that isn't enough.

HARPER JEAN TOBIN: Bringing federal prosecutions and seeking long federal prison sentences was never the primary purpose of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

CORNISH: That's Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. She says the law also calls for building trust between targeted communities and law enforcement as well as training police on how to help transgender victims of hate crimes.

TOBIN: Preventing and addressing violence is a very complex problem that really involves changing our culture and dismantling the terrible stigma that transgender people face.

SHAPIRO: And Tobin says she's still waiting to see that from this administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.