Joshua Brandon Vallum, 29, of Lucedale, Mississippi, pleaded guilty today to a federal hate crime for assaulting and murdering Mercedes Williamson because she was a transgender woman. Williamson was 17 years old and resided in Alabama at the time of her death. Vallum was charged with violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The plea was announced by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch; Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division; U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi; and Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze of the FBI's Jackson Division.
"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," said Attorney General Lynch. "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 the defendant on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate. By holding accountable the perpetrator of this heinous deed, we reinforce our commitment to ensuring justice for all Americans."
"Congress passed the Shepard-Byrd Act to protect our most vulnerable communities, including the transgender community, from harm," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta. "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. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute hate crimes, which not only target individuals for harm, but also deny entire communities the promises of true freedom and equal protection."
"The defendant committed a horrific and reprehensible act of violence against the victim because of her gender identity," said U.S. Attorney Davis. "This type of attack threatens the harmony of our diverse community and undermines America's principle of equality under the law. The U. S. Attorney's Office is committed to continuing its work, in conjunction with the DOJ Civil Rights Division, to ensure that the federal laws prohibiting violations of civil rights will be aggressively prosecuted in the Southern District of Mississippi. I commend our law enforcement partners, including the FBI, George County Sheriff's Office and Office of the District Attorney for the 19th Judicial District, who worked tirelessly in this case to ensure that justice was done."
"Hate crime has no place in our society, especially by those targeting victims solely for their sexual orientation or identity," said Special Agent in Charge Freeze. "This guilty plea will go towards demonstrating hate crime will not be tolerated in the United States. The FBI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate hate crimes and bring those to justice who violate the civil rights of our citizens."
According to admissions made as part of his guilty plea:
In the late spring or early summer of 2014, Vallum, a member of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation, began a consensual sexual relationship with Williamson. Vallum knew at the time that Williamson, who identified and presented as female, was transgender.
During his romantic relationship with Williamson, Vallum kept the sexual nature of the relationship, as well as Williamson's transgender status, secret from his family, friends and other members of the Latin Kings.
Around August or September 2014, Vallum terminated his romantic and sexual relationship with Williamson and had no contact with her until May 2015. On May 28, 2015, Vallum decided to kill Williamson after learning that a friend had discovered Williamson was transgender. Vallum believed he would be in danger if other Latin Kings members discovered that he had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with a transgender woman.
On May 29, 2015, Vallum went to Alabama to find Williamson, planning to take Williamson to Mississippi and kill her there. After locating Williamson at her residence, he used false pretenses to lure Williamson into his car so he could drive her to Mississippi.
Vallum drove Williamson to his father's residence in Lucedale, Mississippi, where he parked his vehicle behind the house. As Williamson sat in the vehicle's passenger seat, he assaulted her. After using a stun gun to electrically shock Williamson in the chest, Vallum repeatedly stabbed Williamson with a 75th Ranger Regiment pocket knife.
As Vallum stabbed Williamson, Williamson fled from the vehicle. He chased Williamson and stabbed her again multiple times. Vallum delivered what he believed to be a fatal stab to Williamson's head, as he thought he "hit brain" with a blow from the pocket knife. Williamson briefly got back up but again fell to the ground.
Vallum went back to his vehicle to attend to a cut on his thumb that he inadvertently inflicted with his own knife during the attack. At that time, Williamson got up again and stumbled farther into the woods.
Vallum retrieved a hammer from the trunk of his vehicle and chased after Williamson. He caught up with Williamson and hit her on the back of the head with the hammer. Williamson fell to the ground and Vallum used the hammer to hit her in the head several more times until Williamson died.
After the murder, Vallum attempted to dispose of the murder weapons and other evidence linking him to the crime. He also falsely claimed to law enforcement that he killed Williamson in a panic after discovering Williamson was transgender. In pleading guilty today, Vallum acknowledged that he had previously lied about the circumstances surrounding Williamson's death and that he would not have killed Williamson if she was not transgender.
U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. of the Southern District of Mississippi accepted Vallum's plea. Vallum faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Vallum previously pleaded guilty to murdering Williamson in George County, Mississippi, Circuit Court, where he was sentenced to life in prison. While the state convicted Vallum on murder charges, the federal government was able to bring this prosecution because Mississippi does not have a hate crimes statute that protects people from bias crimes based on their gender identity.
This guilty plea was the result of a cooperative effort among the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of Mississippi and the Office of the District Attorney for Mississippi's 19th Judicial District. This case was investigated by the FBI Jackson Division's Pascagoula Safe Streets Task Force and the George County Sheriff's Office. It is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Julia Gegenheimer and Special Litigation Counsel Sheldon Beer of the Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden of the Southern District of Mississippi.