WASHINGTON – In a landmark for hate-crime legislation, a Mississippi man was sentenced Monday to 49 years in prison and fined $20,000 for killing his 17-year-old transgender ex-girlfriend, the Justice Department said.
A federal judge sentenced Joshua Vallum, 29, of Gulfport, for killing Mercedes Williamson, 17, in 2015. Vallum had pleaded guilty to the hate crime, admitting that he killed his former girlfriend because he was afraid that his fellow Latin King gang members would find out that she was transgender.
Vallum had previously pleaded guilty in state court to murder and had been sentenced to life in prison.
Monday’s sentencing marked the first time the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was used to prosecute a case with a transgender victim, the Justice Department said in a statement. Former President Barack Obama signed the federal legislation in 2009 and it went into effect in 2010.
Many LGBT advocates were closely watching the Mississippi case. Williamson’s slaying made headlines when Caitlyn Jenner mentioned the teen during an acceptance speech for an award in 2015.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement: “Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals. The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”
Prosecutors said Vallum killed Williamson because he feared the Latin Kings would find out he had dated a transgender woman. The gang forbids homosexual activity and declared it punishable by death. The couple had split in 2014.
Vallum began planning to kill Williamson after a friend called him in May of 2015, to say he had discovered her identity, federal prosecutor Julia Gegenheimer said during Vallum’s plea hearing last December.
Vallum lured Williamson into a car in Alabama by saying they were going to have sex and drove her 50 miles to his family home in Lucedale, Miss., prosecutors have said. Vallum shocked her with a stun gun and stabbed her in the body and head with a pocketknife, prosecutors. When Williamson tried to escape, Vallum chased her and bashed her in the head with a hammer, prosecutors added.
Vallum faced life in federal prison, but U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola agreed to the lighter sentence suggested in a plea deal.
Public defender Ellen Allred had cited the neglect and abuse Vallum suffered as a child. He tried to commit suicide when he was only seven or eight, she said.
The hate crime law – which Sessions had opposed when he was a senator – is named for two men who were killed in especially brutal manners in 1998. Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die near Laramie, Wyo. He was 21. Prosecutors argued the killers targeted him because he was gay.
James Byrd Jr., who was black, was chained to a car by his ankles and dragged to his death by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. He was 49.