At least 23 trans people were murdered in 2016. For various reasons, many of these killings go unsolved and unreported. Now, at least one trans woman may receive some justice: the murderer of Mercedes Williamson has been charged with a federal hate crime. This is the first time the law has punished someone this way for the murder of a transgender individual.
The case received attention after Caitlyn Jenner paid tribute to the slain woman at the ESPY awards in 2015. Now, for the first time in the case of the murder of a transgender woman, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention law has been used to punish murderer Joshua Brandon Vallum, who pled guilty.
Buzzfeed reports that Vallum had "beat [Williamson] with a hammer, shocked her with a stun gun, and stabbed her repeatedly ... Vallum had already pled guilty to murder in a Mississippi state court case 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."
“For this Justice Department, it is important for us to send an unequivocal message that violence based [on] one’s gender identity constitutes a hate crime. It is important for us to have spoken out on the bias motive," said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, about the case.
The aforementioned law was put in place in 2009 to discourage crime against people for their "perceived sexual orientation or gender identity" but has never before been used to prosecute someone who had harmed a transgender person.
“I don’t think the law is necessarily operating as it should, simply because we have a lot of work to do in this country around recognition of bias motivation,” Gupta added. “They are often being investigated as run-of-the mill crimes.”
Vallum faces up to life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
"[This] sends a message, especially to the LGBT community, that the federal government will use this law when they are victims of crime," said Richard Saenz, staff attorney for Lambda Legal. "For too long LGBT people have been ignored and violence against them has been ignored and they've felt that crimes against them will never be taken seriously."
"At the same time, it is important to note that our criminal justice system needs reform, and that simply adding new statutes that add to our already over-large prison population is insufficient to get at the root of the problem," added Jillian Weiss, Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.
Because not nearly enough information exists about the epidemic of violence against trans people in America, Mic has created a platform by which this data can be collected. You can learn more about that project over here.
[Photo: Geroges County Sheriff's Office]