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Mississippi man gets 49 years in prison in anti-transgender hate crime

GULFPORT, Miss. — A Mississippi man has been sentenced to 49 years in prison for the first-ever conviction on federal hate crime charges arising from the killing of a transgender person.

A federal judge on Monday sentenced Joshua Vallum, who had previously been sentenced to life without parole on state murder charges.

Vallum acknowledged guilt in the 2015 death of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson. The case had been closely watched by LGBT advocates nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola could have sentenced Vallum to life in federal prison, but stuck to a sentence suggested in a plea agreement between defense attorneys and prosecutors, citing Vallum’s neglected childhood and other issues.

Prosecutors say Vallum killed Williamson to keep fellow gang members from discovering they’d been having sex. Latin Kings rules ban homosexual activity and declare a punishment of death.

In connection with the killing, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the Justice Department, under his leadership, will continue efforts to “vindicate the rights of those individuals who are affected by bias motivated crimes.”

Demoya Gordon, attorney for the Transgender Rights Project of Lambda Legal, says she welcomes Vallum’s conviction, but says she discounts Sessions’ statement. She cites, among other actions, the Trump administration’s reversal of guidelines that transgender students nationwide should be able to use school bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.