Joshua Brandon Vallum Credit: Sun Herald

Joshua Brandon Vallum of Lucedale received a sentence of 49 years in prison for what the U.S. Justice Department called the “bias-motivated” murder of his transgender ex-girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson. This is the first case prosecuted under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act involving a victim targeted because of gender identity.

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

Vallum pleaded guilty in December 2016 to charges under the federal Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and, as part of his plea deal, admitted that he decided to kill Williamson after learning that a friend had discovered Williamson was transgender, according to a press release from the U.S. Justice Department.

During his plea hearing, Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings and Queens Nation gang, kept both the sexual nature of their relationship and Williamson’s transgender status secret from his family and friends.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Credit: Wikimedia

After Vallum ended his romantic relationship with Williamson, he said they had no contact until he reached out to her on May 29, 2015, when he lured Williamson to his car and drove her to Mississippi. The day before Vallum had learned his friend had discovered Williamson was transgender, and he said he was terrified he would be targeted if his fellow Latin Kings gang members found out about their relationship.

Once Williamson was in his car, Vallum admitted that he drove her to his father’s residence in Lucedale, where he used a stun gun to electrically shock Williamson in the chest. He then stabbed Williamson, repeatedly, and struck her with a hammer until she died. Afterwards, Vallum tried to dispose of the murder weapons and other evidence linking him to the crime.

Initially, Vallum had told law enforcement that he killed Williamson in a panic after discovering she was transgender.  In pleading guilty, Vallum acknowledged that he had lied about the circumstances surrounding Williamson’s death, and that he would not have killed Williamson if she was not transgender.

“Crimes motivated by hate have devastating effects on the victims, their families and community, but also leave a blemish on our society as a whole,” said Christopher Freeze, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jackson office. “The FBI’s mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, and we will continue to pursue that mission in Mississippi. The outcome of this case would not have been possible without the partnership between local, state and federal law enforcement.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.