Mississippi Man First to be Prosecuted and Sentenced Under Federal Hate-Crime Statute

Written by: Brianne Szopinski

On Monday, May 15, 2017, Joshua Vallum became the first individual to be prosecuted and sentenced for a federal hate crime after the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson. Vallum pled guilty to Williamson’s murder on December 21, 2015. In his plea, he stated that, despite earlier statements to the police indicating his unawareness of Williamson’s gender identity, he ultimately killed Williamson because she identified as transgender.

Typically, prosecutions for hate crimes are handled by individual states, as opposed to the federal government. However, the state of Mississippi, where the crime took place, does not have a statute protecting individuals from hate crimes based on their gender identity. Therefore, the government brought federal charges against Vallum under a federal hate crime statute: the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Section (a)(2) of the statute criminalizes behavior in which an individual commits or attempts to commit violent acts against another when motivated by certain characteristics of the victim (i.e., actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability). Because Congress passed section (a)(2) of the Act under its Commerce Clause power, the government must establish that the alleged hate crime occurred in or affected interstate or foreign commerce.

Here, the government alleged that Vallum murdered Williamson based on her actual or perceived gender identity. Although previously in a relationship, Vallum and Williamson broke up in 2014. Prosecutors in the case alleged that Vallum knew that Williamson identified as a transgender female during the course of their relationship. On May 28, 2015, Vallum allegedly murdered Williamson after his friend discovered that Williamson identified as transgender. The government alleged that Vallum persuaded Williamson to enter his car at her home in Alabama, drove her to Mississippi, assaulted, and ultimately stabbed her. Prosecutors believe that, despite already knowing Williamson’s gender identity, Vallum murdered Williamson due to fear of retribution from other members of his gang, the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation. Vallum allegedly believed that his own life was in danger because other gang members knew about his sexual relationship with a transgender individual.

Vallum was sentenced to 49 years in prison and a $20,000 fine in the Southern District of Mississippi. The charges against Vallum and the sentence imposed drew mixed reactions from various civil rights groups across the country. Some groups approved of the government’s commitment to protect individuals against discrimination based on gender identity. Others acknowledged the problems associated with enhanced-sentencing statutes, stating that these laws do not protect against or prevent hate crimes, as they only punish perpetrators after the crimes are committed. Nevertheless, as hate crimes continue to be committed across the country, it is likely that this will not be the last invocation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

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Sources Cited

Emanuella Grinberg, Transgender Hate Crime Guilty Plea in Federal Court is a First, CNN (Dec. 23, 2016, 6:24 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/22/politics/mississippi-transgender-hate-crime/index.html.

Ralph Ellis, Emanuella Grinberg, & Janet DiGiacomo, Mississippi Man Sentenced for Hate Crime Killing of Transgender Woman, CNN (May 16, 2017, 6:39 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/15/us/transgender-hate-crime-murder-sentence-mississippi/.

Anti-Defamation League, Hate Crime Laws – The ADL Approach 4 (2012), https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Hate-Crimes-Law-The-ADL-Approach.pdf.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, U.S. Dep’t of Just., https://www.justice.gov/crt/matthew-shepard-and-james-byrd-jr-hate-crimes-prevention-act-2009-0 (last updated Aug. 6, 2015).

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 249 (2012).

Autumn Callan, Mississippi Man Sentenced in First US Transgender Hate Crime Conviction, Jurist (May 16, 2017, 3:38 PM), http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2017/05/mississipi-man-sentenced-in-first-us-transgender-hate-crime-conviction.php.

Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Trial Court Denial of Transgender Name Change

–by Joseph Railey

Citations: In re Feldhaus, __S.E.2d__ , 2017 WL 253649 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017)

Abstract: The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a denial of two name change petitions from Columbia County Superior Court. Petitioners in both cases were transgender males who sought to change their names to reflect their gender identity. The trial court noted that doing so would be a fraud against the state and would “offend the sensibilities and mores of . . . the citizens of the state.” Finding that there was an abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court and granted the name changes.

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Two transgender males, Rowan Elijah Feldhaus and Andrew Norman Baumert each appealed a decision from the same trial court judge who denied their request to change their legal names. As transgender males, both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert were determined to be female at birth, however, each identifies as a male. Both individuals sought to change their name to reflect their gender identity.

Under Georgia state law, any individual may change a name by “present[ing] a petition to the superior court of the county of his residence, setting forth fully and particularly the reasons why the change is asked, which petition shall be verified by the petitioner.” Both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert complied with this standard when they filed their respective petitions in Columbia County. At their hearing, each petitioner was unopposed in their request to change their name.

Despite the clear statute and unopposed petitions, the superior court rejected both petitions. The court noted that a transgender individual’s desire to change their name from a name that is associated with their sex assigned at birth to one associated with their gender identity “presents problems for the person and the general public.” The court continued that “his or her assumed name could ‘confuse and mislead’ . . . emergency personnel, actuaries, insurance underwriters, and other businesses and relationships where the sex of an individual is relevant.” The court allowed both petitioners to change their name to a “gender neutral” name but determined that “Rowan Elijah” and “Andrew Norman” as traditionally masculine names could confuse and mislead the public. The court concluded each hearing by noting that “[n]ame changes which allow a person to assume the role of a person of the opposite sex are, in effect, a type of fraud on the general public” and that these changes “offend the sensibilities and mores of a substantial portion of the citizens of [Georgia].” Based on these reasons, the court denied both petitioners’ valid petitions to change their name.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals (the intermediate appellate court in Georgia) noted that the proper standard of review for a petition to change a name is “the exercise of a sound legal discretion.” Therefore, absent an abuse of discretion, the court cannot disturb the decision. Noting that neither petitioner’s application was opposed (in fact both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert presented evidence in support of their desired name change) and neither was seeking to commit a fraud against the state, the court determined that there was an abuse of discretion.

In the past, the court denied name change petitions when there was evidence that the petitioner sought to change their name in order to commit a fraud, embarrass another, seek to escape some negative history, or otherwise display an improper motive. As an example, the court cited In re Mullinix, 152 Ga. App. 215 (1979), where the court reversed a trial court order preventing a married woman to restore her maiden name as the trial court felt that the name change might “confuse and embarrass” the mother’s child. Here, the court examined this same “confuse or embarrass” standard by determining that the standard was not a proper basis for the trial court to deny a name change. While Mr. Baumert and Mr. Feldhaus each raised constitutionality arguments in their appeal, the court did not consider these arguments as the court held that the trial court abused its discretion.

Absent any evidence of fraud or improper motive, and as each petitioner lived their lives as males, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court and ordered that the petitions to change names be granted.

New York Court of Appeals Takes Strict View on Preservation

—by David Katz

In re New York City Asbestos Litigation (Konstantin v. Tishman Liquidating Corp.), 2016 N.Y. LEXIS 1765; 2016 NY Slip Op 05064 (N.Y. June 28, 2016), aff’g on other grounds 121 A.D.3d 230 (N.Y. App. Div. 2014).

Abstract:

The Court of Appeals recently reminded litigators that preservation doctrine favors the cautious litigator who renews his objections whenever circumstances change.  The Court held that an objection to allowing cases to be tried jointly was unpreserved for appellate review where parties settled after the order was made and the defendant failed to renew its objection at trial.

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On June 28, 2016, the New York Court of Appeals delivered a decision highlighting the pitfalls of preservation doctrine in New York.  “You snooze, you lose” is the basic aphorism that summarizes preservation doctrine, but the New York Court of Appeals reminded the legal community that a hole in the preservation chain can sever appellate review.  In re New York City Asbestos Litigation presented the Court with a specific iteration of an oft-faced preservation issue: when circumstances change, will an initial objection suffice for preservation purposes.

Ten plaintiffs moved to have their cases tried jointly.  The defendants opposed the joint trial, but the trial court allowed seven cases to be joined for trial.  Between the order granting a joint trial and the trial, five cases settled; thus, two cases remained to be tried.  One defendant did not renew its opposition to the joint trial.  After trial, one defendant made a post-trial motion challenging the joint trial.  The trial court denied the motion.

The defendant then appealed, arguing that the order allowing a joint trial was improperly made.  Plaintiffs, in response, argued that the issue was not preserved for appellate review because, amongst other arguments, Defendants’ opposition was not renewed after the five cases settled.

The First Department, in a three-to-two decision, found that the issue was preserved on review.  Specifically, the majority reasoned that the issue was preserved because the appeal stemmed from a final order, which brought the interlocutory order up for review.  As a result, the majority found that there was no need to renew an objection after five cases settled.  The majority, having found the issue preserved, affirmed the trial court’s decision on the merits.  The dissent also was not willing to find the issue unpreserved.  Instead, the dissent disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the appendix on appeal was sufficient to permit appellate review.

A unanimous Court of Appeals affirmed the result, but wrote a separate opinion addressing the preservation issue.  According to the Court of Appeals, opposing the initial joint trial motion, along with a post-trial motion, was insufficient to preserve the issue for appellate review.  Instead, according to the Court of Appeals, the defendant should have renewed the motion after five plaintiffs settled in the hopes that the trial court would rebalance CPLR § 602 considerations in its favor.  As a result, the Court of Appeals refused to review the order.

The Court of Appeals reminds litigation counsel: object early, object often.  In order to argue a case effectively on appeal, litigators must remember to renew arguments, even if the litigator does not think the rationale underpinning the decision has changed.  Raising a trial court’s ire just before trial is a gamble, but the Court of Appeals reminded us that failing to preserve an issue is a sure bet against appellate review.