In federal court Wednesday, Joshua Brandon Vallum, 29, of Lucedale, Mississippi, plead guilty to a federal hate crime for assaulting and murdering Mercedes Williamson because she was a transgender woman, according to federal officials.
Williamson, born Michael Wilkins, 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.
This is the first case prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, according to officials.
“The defendant committed a horrific and reprehensible act of violence against the victim because of her gender identity,” said U.S. Attorney Gregory 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 Christopher Freeze of the FBI’s Jackson Division. “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 was a biological male who identified and presented as a female.
- During his romantic relationship with Williamson, Vallum kept the sexual nature of the relationship, as well as Williamson’s biological gender, 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, as the Latin Kings Manifesto Constitution expressly prohibits involvement in homosexual activities.
- 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. accepted Vallum’s plea.
By all accounts , prosecutors said, Williamson was a good person who was loving and kind and lived her life openly as a transgender girl, according to the Sun Herald.
The Sun Herald stated that her grandmother and uncle attended Tuesday’s court hearing, but did not wish to comment.
Prosecutors said Williamson had lived her life as a boy until she was 14 and became her true identity as Mercedes, the Sun Herald report stated.
Vallum had broken up with Williamson about eight months before he called her and told he was going to pick her up and they were going to go somewhere to have sex, the news report stated.
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.
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