Man sentenced to 49 years for killing transgender ex-girlfriend

First time US hate crime law used in case involving violence against transgender person

Joshua Vallum pleaded guilty to the murder of Mercedes Williamson. Photograph: AP

Joshua Vallum pleaded guilty to the murder of Mercedes Williamson. Photograph: AP


A Mississippi man has been sentenced to 49 years in prison for killing his transgender former girlfriend, a case the US Justice Department said was the first involving violence against a transgender person to be prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Act.

Joshua Vallum, (29), killed Mercedes Williamson in May 2015, after the end of their relationship, because a friend learned that she was transgender, a fact Vallum kept hidden from friends and family while they dated. Local news reports said that Williamson was 17 at the time of her death.

Vallum is a member of the Latin Kings gang and decided to kill Williamson because he “believed he would be in danger” if other gang members learned that he had once dated a woman he knew to be transgender, the Justice Department said in a statement. He pleaded guilty to a state-level murder charge and was sentenced to life in prison last July.

In December, Vallum pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal hate crime statute signed into law in 2009.

“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in this week’s statement. “The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias-motivated crimes.”

But Rob Hill, Mississippi state director for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, said the case showed how much more work needed to be done at the state level. Mississippi is one of 20 states that do not have a hate crime law covering crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“There is an epidemic of violence against transgender people, and particularly women of color, across the country,” 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.”

In an interview with The Sun Herald, a newspaper in Biloxi, Mississippi, Jenny Wilkins, Williamson’s mother, said the relationship between Vallum and her daughter, to whom she referred using male pronouns, lasted 8 and a half months. “To me, I didn’t think that anything was wrong with him,” she said of Vallum. “He was so nice.”

“He bought him stuff; he took him out to eat. The whole nine yards,” Wilkins said. “Like something me and my husband do is what him and Josh do.”

At some point their relationship ended – the Justice Department this week did not say when – and Vallum and Williamson fell out of touch. There had been no contact between them until the night of the murder.

When Vallum found out that a friend had learned Williamson’s gender identity, he went to her home in Alabama and persuaded her to get in his car and ride with him to Mississippi, the Justice Department said.

He then drove her to his father’s home in Lucedale, Mississippi, where he attacked her with a stun gun, repeatedly stabbed her and beat her to death with a hammer. After he killed Williamson, he tried to dispose of the murder weapons and destroy other evidence linking him to the crime, the Justice Department said.

Vallum also lied to law enforcement about the murder, telling the police at first that he had killed Williamson in a state of panic and rage after learning for the first time that she was transgender, according to the Justice Department.

As part of his guilty plea, Vallum admitted that he had known her gender identity during their relationship and that he would not have decided to murder her had she not been transgender.

In a jailhouse interview with The Sun Herald, Vallum said he felt remorse for the killing. “If there was one thing that I could take back I wish that would be it,” he said.

“I would even trade places with Mercedes so that I wouldn’t have to go through all this that I’m having to go through now. It’s just not worth it.”

– New York Times