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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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.