In May 2015, Joshua Brandon Vallum, 29, lured his former girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson, 17, into his car. They drove from her home in Alabama to his father’s house in Ludedale, Mississippi. There, he used a stun gun before stabbing her and hitting her in the head with a hammer until she died.
Williamson, 17, was a transgender woman. On Monday, Vallum will become the first person to be sentenced under a 2009 federal law that targets anti-transgender hate crimes.
Vallum began dating Williamson in 2014, according to local news reports, but broke up with her later that year after a member of his gang—the Latin Kings—found out that she was transgender. Vallum said he feared repercussions from this fellow gang members and decided to kill her in May 2015.
He pleaded guilty to the hate crimes charges in December, the Associated Press reported, after previously pleading guilty to murder charges in state court. Vallum is currently serving life in prison for the murder charge. The hate crimes charge carries its own life sentence without parole.
The Department of Justice says this is the first case prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was passed under the Obama administration and extended federal hate crimes protections to cover gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.
“Our nation’s hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are,” said then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement when Vallum pleaded guilty in December. “Today’s landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle, and it signals the Justice Department’s determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity. While Mississippi convicted the defendant on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate.”
Reported murders of trans people, and especially trans women of color, have been on the rise in the past few years. While that might partially be because of increased reporting, trans people still face disproportionate rates of murder and violence. This year alone, 10 trans and gender non-conforming women of color have been reported killed. Last year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recorded 23 trans people killed, an increase from 2015, when they recorded 16 trans people killed.
While this seems like a step toward addressing that crisis, it is unlikely that the Department of Justice will continue prosecuting the murders of trans people as hate crimes. Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions fought the introduction of the hate crimes act in 2009.
State hate crime laws vary widely—only 17 states and D.C. have hate crime legislation that covers both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Update, 5/16/2017, 10:31 A.M.: U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. sentenced Vallum to 49 years in prison for the hate crime charges on Monday, short of the maximum sentence of life in prison after the defense and prosecution agreed on a plea deal that referred to Vallum’s abusive childhood, according to reports.
Vallum is also serving his life sentence on the state murder charges he pleaded guilty to last year.