Mississippian to be sentenced in anti-transgender hate crime

Sheriff's Department

"It's the first of its kind for hate crimes of a transgender person".

Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged to utilize hate crime laws.

The federal case itself moved quickly.

When the Justice Department announced in December that Vallum had pleaded guilty to hate crime violations, LGBT rights groups lauded the department's actions.

Vallum pleaded guilty earlier to murder charges in state court. BuzzFeed News reports the state does not have its own hate crimes law on the books. However, his lawyers have never contested evidence that Vallum had long known Williamson was transgender.

According to prosecutors, Vallum killed Williamson to prevent his friends from finding out they were having sex.

When Vallum learned that his secret about Williamson may get out, he chose to kill her on May 28, 2015.

Vallum was at a fellow gang member's house on Dauphin Island, Alabama, when he said he saw Williamson, picked her up and drove her to his family home in rural George County to carry out of the murder.

He then proceeded to stab her in the body and head with a pocketknife, they added.

The roommate also testified that Vallum once told both her and Williamson that his gang would kill the couple if Williamson's transgender status was discovered.

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The case, watched nationally amid concerns transgender women are particularly vulnerable to violence, drew comment from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The federal government was able to designate the murder as a hate crime because MS has not implemented protections for those who commit crimes motivated by gender bias.

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The Southern District of MS sentenced 29-year-old Joshua Brandon Vallum to 49 years behind bars for assaulting and murdering Mercedes Williamson.

This was the first case where a victim had been targeted because of gender identity that had been prosecuted under the USA federal hate crime law, the Department of Justice said in a statement. Phyllis Gerstenfeld is a professor of criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus. However, federal prosecutors brought an additional suit for a hate crime because MS doesn't have a statute protecting people against hate crimes based on their gender identity.

CORNISH: But in MS, prosecutors got lucky.

Williamson tried to escape, prosecutors said, but Vallum chased her into the woods, where he repeatedly hit her in the head with a hammer.

The Human Rights Campaign has written that it is "clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of colour".

GERSTENFELD: So a prosecution like this can set a good example that might give prosecutors the confidence to go forward with these cases. Perhaps he was shocked by the statement of Jefferson Sessions. He said the sentencing quote, "reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals".

The Justice Department released a forceful and surprising statement reaffirming its commitment to prosecuting bias-related crimes against transgender individuals. Some transgender activists say that isn't enough. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009 and expanded existing federal hate crimes law to protect LGBTQ and disabled people.

CORNISH: That's Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. He originally lied to police officers, claiming he freaked out when he was told she was transgender and killed her.

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