At least 21 trans women were murdered in 2015. On February 25, Investigation Discovery shines a spotlight on one of them, 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, whose life was violently cut short by her boyfriend, Josh Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings.
After being arrested, Vallum, 29, claimed he was gripped by “trans panic” moments after learning Williams was transgender. He plead guilty to her murder, the first time the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was used against someone for targeting a victim based on their gender identity.
But as the docuseries Love and Hate Crime unpacks, the case still has many unanswered questions: Was it a true moment of panic or, as prosectors allege, something more premedidated?
Vallum claims he killed Williamson almost immediately after learning she was trans, and that he “blacked out” during the murder, for which he’s terrible contrite. Prosecutors, though, allege he long knew of of gender identity—in fact a former roommate claimed the couple had sex multiple times before her death. The roomie also claimed Vallum told both her and Williamson his fellow gang members had found out his girlfriend was trans, and would likely murder both of them.
Also poking holes in the “crime of passion” theory is the fact that Vallum drove the two of them 50 miles from Alabama to his family home near Lucedale, Mississippi, shocking Williamson with a Taser and then repeatedly stabbing her with a pocketknife. When she made a run for it, he chased her into the woods and bashed her in the head with a hammer.
Directed by Ben Steele (Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia), Love And Hate Crime personalizes the rising epidemic of trans murders in a heartbreaking and harrowing way.
“It is then up to the audience to decide if they believe Josh or not… or if he’s contrite or not,” Steele tells NewNowNext. “As a director, I’m drawn to understanding people’s motives—or the motives they claim to have. Sadly, I have found that people who commit dark crimes, such as the ones Josh commits, believe that their motives are justified. I think all people are a complex mess of qualities, some that make us proud, and some that are shameful.”
Love and Hate Crime also explores how a gruesome crime like this affects a community—Luckdale, Mississippi has a population of barely 3,000, and everyone seemed to have an opinion on Williamson’s death.
“In this part of Mississippi and the South more generally, homophobia is alive and well,” Steele concedes. “In a way its these prejudices that facilitate the thinking and the wider social context for why this murder took place.” While Steele insists no one he spoke to thought Williamson “deserved” to be killed, if Vallum’s case had gone to trial, “it’s possible, one or more jurors might have felt he was in some way ’doing God’s work,’ resulting in his getting charged with a lesser crime.”
So why did he accept a plea? Steele wants viewers to draw their own conclusions.
“I want people to feel conflicted,” he admits. “I don’t want people to see Josh as a ’monster’ despite the terrible nature of the crime he committed. He is more complicated than that. Look, this is a crime that is not just an act of violence against Mercedes, in many ways I see it as an act of violence against himself. Mercedes was a very brave young women who is no longer alive because of the actions and decisions Josh took. But maybe if he had been brought up in London or New York… he might have made different choices.”
Love and Hate Crime premieres Sunday, February 25, at 8/7c on ID