On Monday, Joshua Vallum, 29, of Mississippi was sentenced to 49 years in prison for killing his transgender ex-girlfriend Mercedes Williamson, 17, in May 2015. He is the first to be prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Act involving violence against a transgender person, according to the Justice Department.

Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings gang, knew of Williamson’s gender identity during the entirety of their eight and a half month relationship. According to Williamson’s mother, Jenny Wilkins, Vallum “was so nice” to Williamson, buying her presents and taking her out to eat. Nonetheless, Vallum and Williamson eventually grew apart, having no contact until the night of the murder.

Vallum “believed he [was] in danger” after a friend learned that Williamson was transgender. Fearing that his gang members may find out as well, Vallum traveled to Williamson’s home in Alabama and persuaded her to come with him to his father’s home in Mississippi. After their arrival, he then attacked Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed and beat her to death with a hammer.

According to the Justice Department, Vallum attempted to destroy the crime evidence, throwing away the hammer and other murder weapons. He also lied to the police about the murder, claiming that he killed Williamson out of panic and rage after learning her gender identity for the first time.

Nonetheless, Vallum pleaded guilty to a state-level murder charge last July, earning him life in prison. Last December he also pleaded guilty to a violation against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal hate crime law passed in 2009.

“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in the case statement. 

However, according to Rob Hill, the Mississippi director for the Human Rights Campaign, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy group, there is still much work to be done to address hate crimes at the state level. Twenty states, including Mississippi, do not have hate crime laws concerning crimes committed based on sexual orientation and gender identity, not taking into account the “epidemic of violence against transgender people, and particularly women of color, across the country,” said Hill.

Even though Vallum’s motive for killing Williamson was her gender identity, he would not have been charged with a hate crime if his crime had not crossed a state line. Thus, Vullum’s sentence is only a stepping stone as, according to Sessions, “the Justice Department [continues] its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias-motivated crimes.”

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