PINE BELT (WDAM) - It’s a case that grabbed national attention in 2015. Mercedes Williamson, 17, a transgender teenager from Alabama, was killed in George County, Mississippi at the hands of Josh Vallum. Since Vallum crossed state lines, bringing Williamson into Mississippi, he was prosecuted on the federal level under the federal hate crime law.
However, looking through 2015 hate crime statistics from the FBI, Williamson’s murder doesn’t exist. In fact, statewide, Mississippi law enforcement agencies reported zero hate crimes that year. That’s because agencies aren’t required to report hate crimes to the FBI and only 43 agencies in Mississippi participated in reporting that year. Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent who spent two decades with the agency, 10 of them working hate crimes, said she’s heard a lot of different reasons why agencies don’t report.
“I’ve heard everything from, ‘We don’t have hate crime here, there’s no reason to report something that’s not happening.' I’ve heard, ‘We don’t have to, someone told me somewhere in our state, I don’t think I have to.’ I’ve heard, ‘My chief didn’t make it a priority, so I don’t check that box,’” said Deitle.
Another high profile case happened in Jackson back in 2011. James Anderson was killed when prosecutors say a group of white supremacists went out looking to hurt black people.
Anderson was beaten and ran over. His attackers were sentenced under the federal hate crime law, but according to numbers from the FBI, only one hate crime happened in Mississippi that year. It wasn’t the death of James Anderson, but rather a crime on the Gulf Coast.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Mississippi is one of 17 states that has some type of hate crime law, but does not require data collection on those hate crimes. Looking through the last few years, there are only a handful of Pine Belt law enforcement agencies that are part of the reporting program. WDAM contacted every law enforcement agency in the Pine Belt to get a copy of their policy on hate crimes. After all those calls, we got zero policies. Not because agencies didn’t want to release them, but rather because those policies don’t exist.
“It does not surprise me that the policies are not in place,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU. “There needs to be a lot of work with our local law enforcement agencies.”
All those agencies instead rely on state law. The problem is, Mississippi’s current statue is simply an enhancement of penalties covering crimes against someone because of race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, national origin and gender or because someone is a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician. That law does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, which are both part of the federal hate crime law.
Two proposed pieces of legislation at the state capitol tried to add those categories during the 2019 session, but those bills died in committee. Riley-Collins said not having police policies in place, coupled with certain groups not protected under state law, create a problem.
“Police departments unfortunately have not bothered or been compelled to actually ensure that they are looking at these venerable populations in a way that protects them, because again there is no true hate crimes statute in the state of Mississippi,” said Riley-Collins.
Ryley-Collins believes having one could have created a different outcome in the case of Dee Whigham, a transgender woman from Hattiesburg, who was stabbed to death in 2016 inside a hotel room on the Gulf Coast by a Dwanya Hickerson, who authorities say she met online and admitted in court to killing her.
“She started digging in her purse, and she told me she was born a man and I just lost it. I lost my mind,” said Hickerson during a plea hearing in 2017.
While authorities were initially looking at the case as a hate crime, it was never prosecuted as one. Hickerson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years. Deitle said even though he was convicted of murder, it’s still important for states to pass individual hate crime laws to include certain communities.
“It matters to that community that that motive be exposed and crushed all at the same time,” said Deitle.
In a statement released to WDAM from the FBI office in Jackson about the federal reporting program, we were told, “The program’s primary objective is to generate reliable information for use in law enforcement administration, operation and management."
With cases like Williamson’s and Anderson’s missing from federal statistics and cases like Whigham’s not prosecuted as a hate crime, there’s concern as to whether the information is in fact reliable.
“It does skew the data because again it’s a discretion," said Riley-Collins. “You know, do I want to pursue something based upon gender identity or sexual orientation if I can just say it was a murder?”
“If the information that is being generated, obtained, disseminated is faulty, what does it matter?” said Deitle. “Now you’re just relying on bad data.”
The lack of reporting isn’t just happening in Mississippi, but around the country. While there’s nothing illegal about not reporting, advocates for doing it say it matters if you want to get accurate numbers.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson is looking at proposing legislation on Capitol Hill to making that reporting a requirement.