Justice Department officials announced on Wednesday that they had for the first time brought federal hate crime charges for targeting a victim based on their gender identity.
Joshua Vallum, 29, pleaded guilty to the 2015 assault and murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender woman with whom he had a consensual relationship, the DOJ said. Vallum is the first person to be prosecuted for targeting a transgender person under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention act, named for two of the country's most infamous hate crimes.
"Our nation’s hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “Today’s landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle, and it signals the Justice Department’s determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity.
Vallum is already currently serving a life sentence for killing Williamson after pleading guilty to murder charges in Mississippi. The Sun Herald notes that because the state does not have laws to protect victims of hate crimes based on gender identity and because Vallum crossed state lines from Alabama to Mississippi to commit the murder, the DOJ had room to bring federal hate crime charges.
According to the DOJ, Vallum and Williamson had been in a relationship, and Vallum was fully aware of Williamson's gender identity. While Vallum contended in his state trial that he killed Williamson only after discovering she was transgender, federal prosecutors said Vallum used a stun gun, repeatedly stabbed, and beat her with a hammer out of fear that fellow members of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation would learn of their relationship—something prohibited in the Latin King bylaws.
Prosecutors in Mississippi said they believed he'd plead guilty to the state murder charges only after a law enforcement search of his phone uncovered a trove of gay pornography.
Richard Saenz, a staff attorney for the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal celebrated Vallum's federal guilty plea, telling CNN, "It sends a message, especially to the LGBT community, that the federal government will use this law when they are victims of crime. For too long LGBT people have been ignored and violence against them has been ignored and they've felt that crimes against them will never be taken seriously."
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in the DOJ's statement on Vallum's guilty plea that Congress passed the Shepard-Byrd Act to "protect our most vulnerable communities, including the transgender community, from harm."
“No conviction, even such a historic one, can relieve the grief and anguish facing this victim’s family. But this guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one’s gender identity violates America’s defining values of inclusivity and dignity," she said.
Vallum now faces up to life behind bars and a $250,000 fine.
2016 has been the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, according to GLAAD. Last year, Williamson was one of at least 21 transgender people—nearly all women of color—who was murdered. In the first eleven months of 2016, 26 trans people were killed.