Metro Weekly

Mississippi man sentenced to 49 years in prison for murdering transgender girlfriend

Josh Vallum becomes first person convicted under federal hate crimes law for targeting his victim based on gender identity

Josh Vallum – Photo: George County (Miss.) Sheriff’s Office.

A Mississippi man who is a member of the Latin Kings gang has been sentenced to 49 years in prison for killing his former girlfriend because she was transgender.

Joshua Vallum, 29, of Lucedale, Miss., becomes the first person in U.S. history to be convicted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for murdering 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, of Theodore, Ala., in June 2015.

The law, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, allows federal prosecutors to seek longer sentences or more severe punishments for those who target crime victims because of a variety of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Vallum previously pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges in December. Prior to that, he pleaded guilty to a state murder charge for which he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors have alleged Vallum shocked Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed her multiple times and beat her to death with a claw hammer in order to keep fellow gang members from finding out about his relationship with Williamson, who had previously dated. According to the Biloxi-based Sun Herald, the Latin Kings prohibit their members from engaging in homosexual activity, and have declared it is punishable by death.

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola, Jr., opted for a 49-year sentence rather than an additional life sentence, citing Vallum’s neglected childhood, abuse as a child, and other extenuating factors.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who voted against the federal hate crimes law under which Vallum was convicted when he was a U.S. senator, issued a statement expressing his support for the enhanced sentence.

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

But Lambda Legal CEO Rachel Tiven took to Medium.com to write a scathing indictment of Sessions, saying he “deserves no credit for this important prosecution.” Tiven also accused Sessions of attempting to use Vallum’s conviction under the hate crimes statute to distract from other actions he is taking at the Department of Justice.

“Jeff Sessions has spent a lifetime opposing civil rights for LGBTQ people and others. The case against Mercedes Williamson’s murderer was brought by President Obama’s Justice Department, and Mr. Sessions can claim no credit that Ms. Williamson is receiving some small measure of posthumous justice,” Tiven wrote.

“Under Attorney General Sessions, the DOJ’s actions have given comfort and cover to those who torment transgender people. From revoking the guidance that reassured trans and queer kids that they are welcome in school, to dropping the government’s lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s notorious HB 2, Jeff Sessions is no friend to our community.” 

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com