Mercedes Williamson – Photo: Facebook.
A member of the Latin Kings street gang made history last week when he became the first person to plead guilty to a federal hate crime charge for targeting a transgender victim. Josh Vallum pleaded guilty to stabbing and beating to death 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender girl with whom he had reportedly been involved, reports the Biloxi Sun Herald.
In pleading guilty, Vallum said he had devised a plan to kill Williamson after one of his associates from the gang learned that Williamson was transgender. He said he believed his life would be in danger if other gang members learned he was involved in a sexual relationship with her. The gang prohibits members from engaging in homosexual activity, often with severe consequences, including death, for those who break that rule.
Vallum’s guilty plea marks the first prosecution in U.S. history for targeting a transgender person under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Vallum has been scheduled for sentencing on March 21, 2017, and could face a sentence of life without parole and a $250,000 fine for the federal hate crime charge. That is in addition to the life sentence (with the possibility of parole) that he’s currently serving on the state charge of murder by deliberate design.
Attorney General Lorettta Lynch acknowledged the first of its kind prosecution under the federal hate crimes statute, saying in a statement: “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. 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. While Mississippi convicted [Vallum] on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate.”
Vallum admitted to hitting Williamson with a stun gun, stabbing her with a military knife, and beating her over the head with a claw hammer until she stopped screaming. He then covered her body with debris and buried her body on his father’s property. He later burned his clothes and disposed of his cell phone, the hammer and the stun gun.
“No conviction, even such a historic one, can relieve the grief and anguish facing the victim’s family,” Vanita Gupta, the Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General, said in a statement. “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.”