A Mississippi man was sentenced [DOJ statement] to 49 years in prison and a fine of $20,000 on Monday in the first-ever conviction under the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act [text], a federal hate crime statute. Joshua Vallum murdered Mercedes Williamson in May 2015. Vallum initially claimed [CNN report] that he killed Williamson in a panic upon learning that she was transgender. He later admitted to lying when he pleaded guilty and that he had decided to kill her after a friend learned that Williamson was transgender. As a member of a crime gang, the Latin Kings, Vallum said believed his life would be in danger if other members learned that he engaged in sexual relationship with a transgender woman. “Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.” Vallum also plead guilty to an earlier murder charge for which he is serving a separate life sentence.
Transgender rights have been a controversial issue in recent months, mostly concerning access to bathrooms. In April the Department of Justice [official website] dropped a lawsuit [JURIST report] against North Carolina concerning a bill requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom associated with their birth gender. North Carolina repealed [JURIST report] House Bill 2 last month with the passage of House Bill 142. In February, six Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives filed a bill [JURIST report] to repeal HB2. Last May, former governor Pat McCrory filed a complaint for declaratory judgment asking the federal court to weigh in on the legality of the bill, but withdrew [JURIST reports] from the lawsuit in September. In March 2016 North Carolina individuals and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] against McCrory, claiming that the bill was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Earlier that month McCrory signed the bill into law [JURIST report], preventing local governments from enacting their own nondiscrimination ordinances and making them unable to pass laws allowing transgender people to use the public restroom or locker room that corresponds with their gender identity.