Joshua Brandon Vallum appears in court in July 2016 for the beating death of transgender woman Mercedes Williamson. Credit: John Fitzhugh/Associated Press

When a Mississippi man pleaded guilty last month to killing a transgender woman, he became the first person to be successfully prosecuted for anti-transgender violence under the federal hate crime law.

Joshua Brandon Vallum admitted in federal court to killing Mercedes Williamson because she was a transgender woman. According to prosecutors, he feared fellow gang members would find out he had been dating a transgender woman.

“This guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one’s gender identity violates America’s defining values of inclusivity and dignity,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law in 2009, made it a federal crime to assault someone based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Vallum’s plea comes at a time when the number of homicides for transgender individuals is at an all-time high, and Sen. Ted Cruz,  R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, say they plan to refile a bill that would protect people and businesses that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals based on their religious principles. Their First Amendment Defense Act was first filed in the House and Senate in 2015 but it failed to go further than one House hearing after it was met with protests from Democrats.

According to court documents, Vallum is a member of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation, a Latino street gang. He and Williamson, born Michael Wilkins, began a consensual sexual relationship in 2014.

A few months later, Vallum ended his relationship with Williamson and didn’t have any contact with her until May 2015, when he said he decided to kill her. Vallum said he became afraid for his safety after he learned that a friend knew Williamson was a transgender woman. He thought gang members might go after him if they knew about the relationship.

Vallum drove Williamson from Alabama to Mississippi, where he attacked her with a stun gun and then stabbed her repeatedly with a pocket knife. Williamson tried to escape, but Vallum chased her down and ended up killing her when he struck her in the head with a hammer. 

He already is serving a life sentence in Mississippi for murdering Williamson. Her death made national headlines when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.

The federal government was able to bring a separate charge because Mississippi doesn’t have a hate crimes statute that protects people from bias crimes based on gender identity. Following his guilty plea, he faces another sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Emmanuel Martinez can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @eman_thedataman.

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Emmanuel Martinez is a data reporter for The Markup. For the past six years, he’s worked in the same position for the investigative news outlet and public radio show Reveal in the San Francisco Bay Area, using data, statistics, and programming to tell stories. His most recent work examined access to homeownership and mortgage discrimination, where he analyzed 31 million housing records to prove that people of color were being routinely denied mortgages in 61 major U.S. metro areas. Emmanuel has also worked on a tool to help match unidentified bodies with missing persons’ reports, reported on why wildfires in the West are growing larger and sparking closer to homes, and dug into water shortages in California’s Central Valley, which produces a quarter of the nation’s food.