Mercedes Williamson was 17 years old when she was murdered in the spring of 2015. The Mississippi teenager was the ninth known trans woman murdered in what many consider to be an epidemic of transphobic violence. Of the 23 reported trans women killed in 2015, the majority were under 25, and at seventeen years old, Mercedes was the youngest.
This week, her killer—who had been in custody since June 2—confessed.
As reported by The Advocate, 28-year-old Josh Vallum, thought to be a member of the Latin Kings gang, was charged with Williamson's murder in the days following the discovery of her partially decomposed body. Now, according to an affidavit recently obtained by the Sun Herald, Vallum has confessed to beating Williamson to death with a hammer while the two—who were reportedly dating—sat in a car together on his father's property in George County, Alabama. The DA is seeking a DNA sample, to compare it to possible blood stains found in Vallum's vehicle. According to the Sun Herald, Vallum's trial is scheduled for July 18th.
In a letter to the judge, Vallum wrote, "I turned myself in to law enforcement to face justice for my crime and solemnly swear that if I am allowed a reasonable bond that I will not abscond justice and will appear in court when ordered."
Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor and the executive director at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School. In an interview with Broadly, Rodgers explained that bail "is determined based on two issues: risk of flight, and dangerousness to the community."
Vallum's plea letter to the judge followed the affidavit in which he confessed Williamson's murder. If Vallum hoped to get his bail reduced by cooperating via confession, Rodgers sees that technique as highly ineffective. "Admitting [to] a murder (absent some claim of self-defense) automatically makes the defendant potentially dangerous to the community," she said. It also "increases the likelihood of flight, because it makes the government's case and therefore the likelihood of conviction and incarceration stronger."
Vallum's confession is good news for the transgender community; in 2015, the majority of these murder cases went unsolved.
"Assuming that there are no legal problems with a confession, it makes the prosecution's case much [easier]," Rodgers said. "Short of a video of a defendant actually committing a crime, there is nothing more powerful than hearing that the defendant, in his own words, admitted a crime." With his confession, prosecuting Vallum will be far easier: "The defense will have to undermine the confession somehow at trial, and will likely spend a great deal of its time working on this aspect of the case."
According to the Sun Herald, it is not yet clear if Williamson's murder is being investigated as a hate crime. If it is labeled as such, it would stand out from other investigations into crimes like this; most of the killings from 2015 were not investigated as hate crimes, with many police departments explicitly excluding the possibility very early into the investigation.
At the end of last year, Broadly investigated the 23 deaths of trans women in 2015. While digging into the underlying cause of the extreme violence facing transgender women in the United States, acclaimed gender theorist Judith Butler warned of grave implications in the failure to correctly identify such acts: "Every time one trans person is killed, the message goes out to every trans person: you are not safe, this dead body could be yours," Butler said. "When the crime is not named as a hate crime, or when the crime is dismissed because the murderer was somehow 'prompted,' the police are sending the same message as the murderer."
Rodgers says, "Mississippi law is unclear about the applicability of the hate crimes statute to this case, as it does not cover victims chosen because of gender identity issues or even sexual orientation." She isn't familiar enough with the facts of this case to determine whether or not they support the use of a hate crime statute, if there is such evidence "a federal hate crime prosecution should be considered," she said. "The federal hate crimes law explicitly includes gender identity as one of its categories, so [there] could be a way to charge the crime federally if the state murder prosecution is unsuccessful for some reason."