The gruesome murder of a transgender woman from Alabama in Mississippi made headlines in 2015, when Caitlyn Jenner remembered 17 year old Mercedes Williamson during her acceptance speech at the ESPY awards. Now, the case is making history, as BuzzFeed reports, as the first-ever use of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in the prosecution of someone charged with targeting a victim for being transgender.
Federal prosecutors say Joshua Vallum beat Williamson with a hammer, shocked her with a stun gun, and stabbed her repeatedly. Her lifeless body was found in June 2015 in a field in the rural community of Rocky Creek, Mississippi. According to the grand jury indictment unsealed in January of this year, Williamson died sometime between May 30, 2015 and June 2, 2015.
According to documents unsealed on Wednesday by a federal court in Mississippi and reported by BuzzFeed, Vallum pleaded guilty Wednesday. Vallum was a documented member of the Latin Kings street gang.
Vallum had already pleaded guilty to murder in Mississippi state court, in July. Local prosecutors said Vallum did not want his fellow Latin Kings gang members to know about the couple’s relationship, but the state lacks its own hate crimes law.
Passed by Congress in 2009, the act added crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity to existing hate crime legislation. BuzzFeed reported prosecutors had never before used the act to bring charges against someone for targeting a victim for being trans.
Vallum’s guilty plea was accepted by U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. of the Southern District of Mississippi, according to the report. He now faces up to life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine when sentenced.