A 49-year prison sentence has been handed down to the man who murdered his teenage girlfriend because she was trans, in the first-ever conviction on federal hate crimes charges for a trans killing.
US District Judge Louis Guirola Jr could have ordered life in prison without parole for Joshua Vallum, 29, who pleaded guilty in December to hate crimes charges for murdering 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson in 2015.
Guirola chose to give the lesser sentence suggested in a plea agreement between the defence and prosecution, which cited Vallum’s neglected childhood among other issues, Associated Press has reported.
Public defender Ellen Allred outlined how “Vallum lived through a childhood that was characterised by abandonment and neglect.
“It’s difficult to image how a mother could lock a two- or three-year-old child in a room for hours on end while adults did drugs.”
The judge told the court: “The taking of a human life because a person has a particular gender identity is particularly heinous and cannot be tolerated in an enlightened society.”
Vallum spoke to apologise for the murder, saying: “Every day, I live with the guilt and regret of my actions.
“If I could bring back Mercedes by giving up my life, I would gladly do so.”
Vallum murdered Williamson because he was scared that his fellow Latin Kings gang members would discover their relationship and kill both of them because the gang forbids gay sex, prosecutors said.
They described how he lured his girlfriend into a car in Alabama and drove 50 miles to his family home in Mississippi before shocking her with a stun gun.
He then proceeded to stab her in the body and head with a pocketknife, they added.
When the 17-year-old girl tried to run into the woods, he chased her down and bashed her head with a hammer, they said.
Vallum admitted in court that he targeted Williamson because she was trans.
And prosecutors have told the court that Vallum knew Williamson was trans long before he killed her.
They cited a witness who testified that Vallum and Williamson had sex multiple times while she was roommates with Williamson.
The roommate also testified that Vallum once told both her and Williamson that his gang would kill the couple if Williamson’s transgender status was discovered.
Vallum did not contest evidence in court that he had long known Williamson was trans.
Federal prosecutor Julia Gegenheimer said during a plea hearing in December that Vallum began planning to kill Williamson after a friend called him last May to say he’d discovered she was trans.
The sentencing marks a landmark moment in the prosecution of transphobic crimes in the US.
Demoya Gordon, attorney for the Transgender Rights Project of Lambda Legal, called the prosecution “significant,” but pointed out that it had begun under President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The cake was already baked” on Vallum’s sentencing when Donald Trump became president, she explained.
Gordon said Lambda Legal remains concerned about how Trump’s policies will affect trans people.
2016 overtook 2015 as the deadliest year for trans people in the US on record, with 27 trans people murdered.
10 trans women of colour have been killed in the US already this year.
The Human Rights Campaign has written that it is “clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of colour”.
Despite federal hate crimes law having included protections for gay and trans people since 2009, no prosecutions of trans murders have been filed under this law, according to Associated Press.