The Justice Department released a forceful and surprising statement reaffirming its commitment to prosecuting bias-related crimes against transgender individuals. Even more shocking was that Attorney General Jeff Sessions also promised to use his power to protect trans men and women.
The department's statement follows the sentencing Monday of Joshua Brandon Vallum to 49 years in prison for the 2015 murder of his transgender girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson. Upon learning that Williamson was transgender, Vallum lured the Alabama teenager into a car where he beat, stabbed, and shot her with a stungun. Vallum attempted to use the "trans panic" defense to police — he later admitted he knew she was transgender, but was afraid his fellow gang members would discover Williamson's gender identity — and indicated he would not have killed her if she was cisgender.
Vallum was prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first case prosecuted under the law that involved a person targeted for their gender identity.
“Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” Sessions said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue its efforts to vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”
Sessions's statement is a welcome change from his past actions on LGBT issues. As an Alabama senator, Sessions worked unsuccessfully to defeat the hate crimes act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009. Sessions continues to oppose marriage equality and, as attorney general, he withdrew Obama-era guidelines on how schools should accommodate transgender students.
At least nine transgender people have been reportedly killed this year in the United States. The actual number killed in any given year is likely much higher, as often the media and police misgender victims, or their deaths are not reported at all.