A Panic Defense Abandoned

Josh Vallum, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to the murder the year before of his transgender girlfriend. | INVESTIGATION DISCOVERY

The chilling ID TV documentary “Love and Hate Crime: Double Lives” chronicles Josh Vallum, a 29-year-old man in Mississippi who murdered his girlfriend, Mercedes Williamson, in 2015 when, he said, he discovered she was transgender. The film features interviews with Vallum in prison recounting the crime. As director Ben Steele’s documentary unspools, however, evidence comes to light that put both Vallum and his crime of passion in a different light.

“Love and Hate Crime: Double Lives” includes interviews with Destiny, who was Mercedes’ best friend, and Margaret Baker, an investigative journalist from the Sun Herald in Biloxi, both of whom provide interesting details about the victim and the perpetrator. Vallum’s description of the violent crime, which involves the multiple stabbing and the bludgeoning of his victim with a carpenter’s hammer, is truly disturbing.

TV explores a transphobic murder and the attitudes surrounding it

What is most interesting is what drives the murderer to plead guilty. He chose a life sentence rather than face a jury in a county where his “penis panic” defense just might have acquitted him. These details are what make this episode compelling.

Gay City News chatted with Steele about his documentary.

GARY M. KRAMER: What prompted you to make this documentary?

BEN STEELE: Hate crime is something that is on the rise in America, and with the rise of Trump — who has given the veneer of respectability to people who hold hateful views — it’s been concerning. We went into production before Trump won the election, but not before he’d had an impact on public discourse and the way hateful comments were echoing around the Internet. That was part of our motivation for the series.

The other motivation was that I’d made a film about gay rights in Russia in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. I realized how receptive audiences were to expressing great concerns and horror that a country like Russia could have such anti-gay, homophobic practices. I thought there was a disconnect between that horror and that the culture wars have not been won in America. There are pockets on the two seaboard sides where gay people have been accepted and embraced, but that’s not everywhere. Going inside the belly of the beast was something I wanted to do to in this film.

Mercedes Williamson was 17 at the time of her killing. | INVESTIGATION DISCOVERY

GMK: How did you gain Vallum’s trust to tell his story? He’s almost sympathetic. Almost.

BS: I’m glad you found him almost sympathetic. People who do these kinds of terrible crimes justify themselves by thinking they are doing the right thing. That’s a horrible thing we have to engage with. Calling someone a monster in a tabloid kind of way is simplistic, reassuring nonsense. I wanted to paint an honest portrait of Josh, which is that of a very conflicted human being.

Josh talks directly to the camera. It’s a device that makes you more likely to like him. I warmed to Josh; if he were born in New York or London, he would have had a very different life. And while he is responsible for the decisions and actions he took, we as a society, we’re responsible for creating a society where some things are shameful and some secrets are best left buried.

We tell the story in that way. It is about allowing the audience to go on the journey that Josh claims he goes on. We want the audience to confront their own prejudices and think deeply about this. We don’t say that these are good guys or bad guys. I think that’s a better way to make an impact. If you preach, it’s either to the converted or you put people off.

GMK: How did you understand the relationship between Josh and Mercedes?

BS: There are parallels between Josh and Mercedes. They each have an inner voice of sexuality, and it is very different from what society is telling them what they should be. There is a heavily dogmatic version of Christianity and male and female roles. Mercedes’ father told her, “You’re supposed to be my football player not my cheerleader,” and Josh came from a family, like many families in that part of the South, where homosexuality is sinful living and something to be deeply ashamed of. They choose very different ways of being. She left her family — they pushed her away — and she bravely embraced her true self. That meant she became very vulnerable. Josh embraced this very conservative sense of himself, and doubled down on his homophobic views.

GMK: Do you think the police acted appropriately in handling the crime?

BS: The law enforcement community does the right thing while some of the people on the ground never feel comfortable with the transgender lifestyle, which is part of the problem. I was impressed with the DA, Tony Lawrence, and his team, who referred to Mercedes as a woman, which balances her parents and grandparents wanting to refer to Mercedes as Michael and never honoring her choices.

GMK: Do you think this film will change attitudes toward transgender people in the South? Might it possibly prevent similar crimes from happening, especially given the kicker that Vallum was the first person convicted of killing a transgender person under the federal hate crimes law?

BS: I’ve made a film that isn’t an issue-driven film, but it’s about an issue. What I hope that this film will make people understand is why people have such bigoted views. That doesn’t make them evil; it’s complicated.

But on the flip side, people who are transphobic. Hopefully, they will think of all the damage that low-level prejudice can have. And that creates a situation in which murder can occur.

LOVE AND HATE CRIME: DOUBLE LIVES | Directed by Ben Steele | Airs Feb. 25 | Investigation Discovery TV