Mississippi Man the First to be Sentenced for Federal Hate Crime against Transgender Victim

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 24, 2017

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Hate CrimeA Mississippi man recently became the first person in America whose criminal sentence was enhanced for committing a federal hate crime against a transgender person.

The sentence brings a tragic murder case to a legal conclusion, but offers hope for members of the LGBT community who have been awaiting enforcement of an Obama-era law which means to protect gay and transgender populations from crimes motivated by their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Mississippi Gang Member Murders Transgender Partner

Joshua Vallum, 29, was sentenced to 49 years in prison for murdering his transgender partner, 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, who was biologically male but transitioned to female. Vallum, who is a member of the Latin Kings gang, admitted his guilt and claimed that he murdered Williamson out of fear of retaliation from his fellow gang members.

The Latin Kings strictly prohibited homosexual relationships, which, according to Vallum, include relationships with male-to-female transgender partners. Although Vallum initially claimed to have killed Williamson in a haze immediately following the moment he found out she was transgender in a defense known as “trans-panic,” testimony to police from the victim’s former roommate indicated that the couple had frequently engaged in sexual relations long before the crime.

Further, Williamson told her roommate that if the Latin Kings ever found out that Vallum was in a relationship with a transgender partner, then his fellow gang members would kill both of them. With the weight of evidence against his story that the murder was spontaneous, Vallum avoided a high-profile trial, entered into a plea negotiation, and admitted to planning to kill Williamson after a friend called to tell him that her identity, and gender orientation, had been discovered. 

Vallum testified that after hearing that his friend knew about his partner’s identify, he drove Williamson to a family home in a small Mississippi town before shocking her with a stun gun, stabbing her in the head and body with a pocketknife, and fatally hitting her in the head with a hammer after she tried to escape into the woods.

After Vallum’s confession and plea, Mississippi prosecutors earned a state sentence of life without parole, and sought additional federal charges under a 2009 law which provided an avenue to enhance criminal sentences for crimes motivated by sexual orientation.

Mississippi Man Sentenced to 49 Years for Transgender Hate Crime

Under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, federal prosecutors could charge Joshua Vallum with a hate crime because his actions were motivated by the victim’s transgender identity. Although Vallum was already serving a life sentence in Mississippi for the murder charge, prosecutors reached out to the Justice Department to see if the federal government would add its authority in a case with a transgender victim. The DOJ complied, and pursued federal hate crime charges, making Vallum the first defendant to be sentenced under the Shepard Byrd Act for a crime against a transgender individual.

Even if Vallum’s federal sentence was more symbolic than practical given his state sentence, it marks an important milestone for LGBT rights. When President Obama signed the Shepard Byrd Act in 2009, he, and the members of Congress who passed the bill, prioritized enforcement efforts against offenders whose crimes were motivated by sexual orientation. The act is named, in part, for Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay Wyoming man who was brutally murdered in 1998 because of his sexual orientation, and the 2009 law was a culmination of years of advocacy by the LGBT community for federal hate crime legislation designed to protect them from crimes motivated anti-gay sentiment.

The act’s use in the Vallum case represents another important step towards LGBT protection, and leaders of the community praised the DOJ for taking on the case while expressing cautious hope for the future.

The Future of Federal Hate Crime Law for LGBT Victims

The decision by the DOJ to prosecute Vallum for a hate crime committed against a transgender victim is set against a disturbing backdrop of attacks against the LGBT community. The murder of Mercedes Williamson was one of a growing number of reports of violence against transgender women by perpetrators who were motivated by the victim’s sexual identity, which has intensified pressure from LGBT activists on state and federal officials who have the power to enact or enforce hate crime legislation protecting the community.

The Vallum case also represents a disconnect of sorts from the Trump administration’s approach towards transgender rights. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has, at times, been openly hostile to LGBT rights and has peeled back other Obama-era measures in favor of the LGBT community, lauded the DOJ’s efforts in this case and assured that the department would continue to prosecute offenders of bias motivated crimes going forward. While it remains to be seen whether the Vallum prosecution will translate to increased protection for the LGBT community, the landmark sentencing is a significant step for transgender individuals who are victimized simply because of their gender identity.

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