GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The man accused of the 2015 killing a teenager in George County has pleaded guilty to first federal hate crime in the U.S. for the death of the transgender woman.
Josh Vallum entered the guilty plea for the death of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson on Wednesday. According to information from the court, Vallum chose to "waive prosecution by indictment and consent to prosecution by Bill of Information."
According to recently unsealed court documents, Vallum "willfully caused bodily injury" to Williamson because of her "actual and perceived gender identity.
The teenager was found buried in a wooded area near Odom Rd in the Rocky Creek Community on June 2, 2015. Vallum, who turned himself in the same day she was found, was sentenced to life in prison by the state court in July 2016.
"Our nation's hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are," said Attorney General Lynch. "Today's landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle, and it signals the Justice Department's determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity. While Mississippi convicted the defendant on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate. By holding accountable the perpetrator of this heinous deed, we reinforce our commitment to ensuring justice for all Americans."
According to the Department of Justice, Vallum and Williamson began dating around late spring / early summer of 2014. Vallum, a member of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation gang, knew that Williamson was born a male and kept the nature of his relationship a secret from family and friends. Vallum told officials that he feared he would be in danger if other Latin King members found out, as homosexual activities were prohibited in the gang.
The pair broke up around August or September 2014, having no further contact until May 2015. After learning a friend found out about the relationship, Vallum decided to kill the teenager on May 28.
Vallum picked Williamson up from her Alabama home, he used false pretenses to get her in his car and driver her to Mississippi. After arriving at his father's house in Lucedale, Vallum stunned the teen with a stun gun and repeatedly stabbed her with a pocket knife.
When the victim ran away, Vallum chased and stabbed her again multiple times, including what he thought was a fatal stab to the head. When Vallum went back to his car, Williamson tried yet again to flee. Vallum got a hammer from his trunk, and hit the teen in the head repeatedly until she died.
After attempting to get rid of the murder weapons, Vallum lied and told police he killed the woman after learning she was transgender. On Dec. 21, Vallum admitted that he lied and would not have killed her if she had not been transgender.
"Hate crime has no place in our society, especially by those targeting victims solely for their sexual orientation or identity," said Special Agent in Charge Freeze. "This guilty plea will go towards demonstrating hate crime will not be tolerated in the United States. The FBI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate hate crimes and bring those to justice who violate the civil rights of our citizens."
Vallum faces life in prison and a $250,000 fine. The DOJ noted that the government was able to charge him with a federal hate crime because Mississippi does not have a hate crimes statute that protects people based on gender identity.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevent Action of 2009 (18 U.S.C. § 249) was passed by Congress in 2009, and enacted in 2010.