Anti-transgender hate crime
Joshua Vallum killed 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson in 2015 - Representational Image REUTERS/Janis C. Alano

A Mississippi man was sentenced to 49 years in prison on Monday, 15 May, for killing his transgender girlfriend. The Justice Department said it was the first prosecution under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act involving a transgender person as the victim.

In a case watched by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates across the US, Joshua Vallum was sentenced to jail for killing his former girlfriend Mercedes Williamson, who was 17 at the time of her death.

The 29-year-old appeared in Gulfport, Mississippi before a federal judge who could have imposed a maximum sentence of life without parole.

Who is Jousha Vallum?

Jousha Vallum, 29, is said to have had a neglected childhood. When he was only two or three he was reportedly locked in a room by his mother for hours on end while the adults in the house "did drugs", prosecutors said. He is also said to have tried to take his life when he was around seven or eight years old.

Vallum had previously been sentenced to life in prison without parole in a state court for the same murder.

But federal prosecutors brought an additional lawsuit for hate crime because Mississippi lacks a statute protecting people against hate crimes based on their gender identity, the Department of Justice said.

Vallum was also a member of the Latin Kings street gang, which is believed to be the largest Hispanic gang in the US. He secretly dated Williamson during the summer of 2014, according to prosecutors.

Joshua Vallum's crime

Vallum is said to have shocked Williamson with a stun gun before stabbing her repeatedly with a pocket knife. He then struck blows on her head with a hammer after she tried running away.

He reportedly killed her to prevent Latin Kings gang members from discovering the two were having sex. Gang rules barred homosexual activity and declared it punishable by death.

In December 2016, Vallum pleaded guilty of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act also called the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal hate crime statute signed into law in 2009.

Court hearings

The Justice Department said Vallum and Williamson fell out of touch after dating for a while and had no contact until the night of the murder. Vallum reportedly went to Williamson's home in Alabama and persuaded her to get into his car and ride with him to Mississippi.

Vallum had also reportedly lied to law enforcement about the murder. He told the police that he had killed Williamson in a state of panic and rage after learning for the first time that she was a transgender person, the Justice Department said.

As part of his guilty plea, Vallum accepted that he knew Williamson's gender identity during their relationship and that he would not have decided to murder her had she not been a transgender woman. Federal prosecutor Julia Gegenheimer said that Vallum's plea hearing in December stated that he planned to kill Williamson after a friend called him in May 2015 to say that he had discovered Williamson's identity.

LGBT advocates praised the federal officials' first use of the 2009 hate crimes law to prosecute an offense against a transgender person.

The Hate Crime Law

On October 28, 2009 President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act also called Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Hate crime laws in the US protect against hate crimes (also known as bias crimes) motivated by enmity against a protected class.

The current statutes permit federal prosecution of hate crimes committed on the basis of a person's protected characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.