Tag Archives: Alabama

Mississippi man pleads guilty to hate crime in killing of transgender teen

A Mississippi man has pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime, admitting he killed Mercedes Williamson because she was a transgender girl.

Williamson was 17 years old and resided in Alabama at the time of her death.

Joshua Brandon Vallum, 29, of Lucedale, Mississippi, was charged with violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The plea was announced by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi and FBI Agent Christopher Freeze.

“Our nation’s hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are,” Lynch said in a news release.  “Today’s landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle and it signals the Justice Department’s determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity.

Lynch added, “While Mississippi convicted the defendant on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate.  By holding accountable the perpetrator of this heinous deed, we reinforce our commitment to ensuring justice for all Americans.”

“Congress passed the Shepard-Byrd Act to protect our most vulnerable communities, including the transgender community, from harm,” said Gupta.  “No conviction, even such a historic one, can relieve the grief and anguish facing this victim’s family.  But this guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one’s gender identity violates America’s defining values of inclusivity and dignity.”

According to admissions made as part of his guilty plea, in the late spring or early summer of 2014, Vallum, a member of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation, began a sexual relationship with Williamson.  During his romantic relationship with Williamson, Vallum kept the sexual nature of the relationship, secret from his family, friends and other members of the Latin Kings.

Around August or September 2014, Vallum terminated his romantic and sexual relationship with Williamson and had no contact with her until May 2015.

On May 28, 2015, Vallum decided to kill Williamson after learning that a friend had discovered Williamson was transgender.  Vallum, according to his admission, believed he would be in danger if other Latin Kings members discovered that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with a transgender teenager.

On May 29, 2015, Vallum went to Alabama to find Williamson, planning to take Williamson to Mississippi and kill her there.

After locating Williamson at her residence, he used false pretenses to lure Williamson into his car so he could drive her to Mississippi. Vallum drove Williamson to his father’s residence in Lucedale, where he parked behind the house.  As Williamson sat in the vehicle’s passenger seat, he assaulted her.  After using a stun gun to electrically shock Williamson in the chest, Vallum repeatedly stabbed Williamson with a 75th Ranger Regiment pocket knife. Williamson attempted to flee at least twice, but Vallum pursued her. He repeatedly stabbed his victim and hit her with a hammer.

Later, Vallum falsely claimed to law enforcement that he killed Williamson in a panic after discovering Williamson was transgender.

In pleading guilty on Dec. 21, Vallum acknowledged that he had lied about the circumstances surrounding Williamson’s death and that he would not have killed Williamson if she was not transgender.

Vallum faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine for the federal crime.

He previously pleaded guilty to murdering Williamson in George County, Mississippi, Circuit Court, where he was sentenced to life in prison.

The federal government prosecuted the hate crime charge because Mississippi does not have a hate crimes statute that protects people from bias crimes based on their gender identity.

Dog named ‘Pig’ dances ballet in ‘Mutt-cracker’

Even casual dance fans have heard of the Christmastime classic “The Nutcracker,” but what about “The Mutt-cracker” ballet?

An Alabama humane society fundraiser features a misshapen little mutt named “Pig” as the pirouetting pet of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The show has been performed by the Birmingham Ballet for the past five years.

This year’s version was staged to a near sellout crowd at the city’s main concert hall.

During the show, a black Great Dane cavorted with Drosselmeyer, who presented his niece Clara with a magical Nutcracker and a spaniel trotted out on stage with cast members.

A pack of pugs did what pugs normally do: They sat and snorted.

Pig, outfitted in a pink tutu, was a featured performer, dancing alone with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Born with a condition called short-spine syndrome, the 3-year-old dog hops somewhat like a frog to stand up and has hunched shoulders that make her gait appear somewhat gorilla-like.

Owner Kim Dillenbeck said being around so many people and dogs in the theater was unnerving for Pig, whose Facebook page has more than 100,000 followers.

“She is so easily startled because she can’t move her head at all; her head is fused at her shoulders,” Dillenbeck said. “So for her to come to a place that has lots of noise and stuff is very difficult.”

But Pig was a trouper, especially when given an incentive: During a rehearsal, ballerina Katherine Free held a treat up in the air to get her to twirl about at the end of a leash.

Free marveled at Pig and the 28 other dogs cast for the show. Only a few of the animals were trained performers, and many were rescues.

“They give so much to the stage and project to the audience more than you might think, and it’s amazing to see them grow from even their rehearsals to being on the stage,” Free said.

Explosion in Alabama shuts down gas pipeline, kills worker

Colonial Pipeline Co’s main gasoline line, a crucial supply source to the East Coast, is shut down for at least several days, after an explosion and fire in Alabama killed one worker and injured five others.

Crews have isolated the fire, which came weeks after its biggest gasoline spill in nearly two decades shut the same line for 12 days.

The latest incident also temporarily shut down the distillates line, which transports diesel and jet fuels to the Northeast. It reopened early Tuesday, Colonial said.

The explosion occurred several miles from the September leak. A nine-man crew working on the line in Shelby County hit Line 1, the main gasoline pipeline, with a large excavator known as a track hoe, Colonial said late Monday. About 1.3 million barrels of gasoline flows daily on the line.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said investigators were on the scene. They noted that contractors were “reportedly” working on repairs on Line 1 related to the Sept. 9 spill.

One person was killed and five others hospitalized in the latest incident, Colonial said.

The explosion took place in an unincorporated wildlife area outside Helena, Alabama. Colonial and the state’s forestry commission were leading the response.

The 5,500-mile pipeline is the largest U.S. refined products pipeline system and can carry more than 3 million barrels of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel between the Gulf Coast to the New York Harbor area.

Shippers using the East Coast supply artery were bracing for a longer shutdown as Colonial said it was hard to predict a repair schedule.

The shutdown will restrict gasoline supplies to millions of Americans in the U.S. Southeast and possibly the Northeast. The Northeast could be less affected since it can get supplies via waterborne shippers. Colonial said its main gasoline line could be open as early as Saturday.

 

Gasoline prices rose as much as 13 percent on Tuesday.

The shutdown already has shippers and fuel companies scrambling to secure supplies via sea or other alternatives to get fuel to the East Coast. Fuel retailers and consumers are likely to be most affected, though prices at the pump have not risen yet, even as gasoline futures have spiked.

 

Barclays analyst Warren Russell said on Tuesday prior to Colonial’s statement that a restart could take longer due to concerns by regulators, given the proximity to the September leak, and as repair and safety inspections take place.

“The facts on the ground are not 100 percent clear,” said Russell. “This is the second accident in two months, so the stakes are much higher this time around.”

 

GASOLINE PRICES SPIKE

Gasoline futures rose as much as 13 percent early in the session to $1.6351, the highest since early June. At midday, it rose 4.1 percent to $1.48 per gallon. U.S. gasoline margins hit their highest since early May.

Ryan Chandler, vice president at Colonial Group Inc, which is not connected to Colonial Pipeline, said he has been fielding calls from the pipeline’s customers seeking access to its Charleston and Savannah marine terminals.

Chandler’s company manages three marine terminals in the Southeast and ships on the Colonial pipeline. He said during the September outage, business at the Savannah terminal jumped sevenfold, while Charleston jumped fivefold.

For inland markets in the U.S. Southeast, which do not have access to ports, alternative supplies can be harder to get.

The September spill led to long lines at the pump and a shortage of fuel in states like Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

 

Anti-gay Justice Roy Moore suspended for remainder of term in Alabama

The Alabama Court of the Judiciary suspended anti-LGBT Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore for the remainder of his term due to his unethical actions against marriage equality.

The nine-member Court of the Judiciary found Moore unanimously guilty of all six charges brought against him.

Moore will remain on the bench, but will not receive a salary and he will be unable to make any legal decisions.

His term is up in 2018. At that point, he will not be able to run for the justice again in Alabama because he will be past the office’s age restriction.

“Roy Moore has flagrantly and willfully attempted to block marriage equality at every turn in Alabama, using his position of power to push a personal, radically anti-LGBTQ agenda,” said Eva Kendrick, state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “We are thrilled that justice has been done today and he will no longer be able to use the bench to discriminate against people he had taken an oath to protect.

Kendrick continued, “Roy Moore’s bigoted rhetoric and unethical actions harmed LGBTQ Alabamians and emboldened those who would seek to hurt us further. We hope this is a turning point for our state. We must focus on electing politicians and judges who will move us forward, not backward.”

HRC Alabama initiated the #NoMoore campaign to remove Moore from the Alabama Supreme Court for “his blatant legal and ethical failings.”

HRC Alabama also called out Moore’s discriminatory behavior with a billboard in downtown Montgomery, and held rallies and press conferences outside each of Moore’s ethics hearings — including the final hearing on Sept. 28.

Last year, HRC and other civil rights organizations joined the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ethics complaint filed with the Judicial Inquiry Commission of Alabama and seeking Moore’s removal for violating the obligations of his office.

The complaint described how Moore urged Gov. Robert Bentley and members of the Alabama  Probate Judges Association to ignore federal court rulings striking down the state’s ban on marriage equality.

The court has now ruled that Moore violated the canons of judicial ethics by ordering the probate judges to defy the federal court injunction requiring them to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on a non-discriminatory basis.

This is the second time in 13 years that Moore has been sanctioned as a result of ethics complaints filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

SPLC president Richard Cohen, in a news release, said, “The Court of the Judiciary has done the citizens of Alabama a great service by suspending Roy Moore from the bench.  He disgraced his office and undermined the integrity of the judiciary by putting his personal religious beliefs above his sworn duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

“Moore was elected to be a judge, not a preacher. It’s something that he never seemed to understand. The people of Alabama who cherish the rule of law are not going to miss the Ayatollah of Alabama.”

Alabama drag queen is suspended chief justice’s nightmare (and that’s good)

Wearing big hair, loads of makeup and high heels, small-town drag queen Ambrosia Starling is the new worst nightmare of suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Moore has called out Starling twice by name in recent days while defending himself against allegations of violating judicial canons with his opposition to same-sex marriage.

During a news conference and in a written statement, Moore cited the entertainer as a reason he’s at risk of losing his job for the second time since 2003.

That’s fine with Starling, who helped lead an anti-Moore rally on the steps of the Alabama Supreme Court building in January. Opponents that day filled out more than 40 complaints against Moore, who already was the subject of other complaints and now faces removal from office if convicted of violating judicial ethics.

“If it takes a drag queen to remind you that liberty and justice is for all, here I am,” Starling said on a recent Tuesday between sips of coffee.

Moore contends the effort to oust him is unfounded and politically motivated.

Starling, born and raised in the southeast Alabama city of Dothan, referred to Moore as a bigot and has encouraged people to submit complaints against Moore to the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, which accused the Republican Moore of wrongdoing in mid-May, resulting in his suspension.

The complaint filed by the Judicial Inquiry Commission accuses Moore of willfully failing to respect the authority of federal court decisions that cleared the way for gay marriage, which Moore opposes on the basis of faith and the law. He issued an administrative order to state probate judges in January that said state laws against gay marriage remained in place months after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide.

An attorney for Moore, Mat Staver, said Moore issued the order because probate judges were asking questions about how to proceed.

Staver said Moore will file a response within 30 days asking the Alabama Court of the Judiciary to dismiss charges against him.

Moore has been tossed once before from the office of chief justice. Thirteen years ago, Moore refused to abide by a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument Moore had erected in the rotunda of the state judicial building, resulting in judicial ethics charges and his removal by the Court of Judiciary.

During a news conference in May, Moore said Starling and similar people would have been classified as having a “mental disorder” just a few years ago.

He also accused Starling of performing a “mock wedding” in violation of a state court order against same-sex marriage, a claim Starling dismissed as untrue.

Starling doesn’t mind being singled out by Moore.

“I’ll take the hit for the entire LGBT community if it gets the message across,” Starling said.

Alabama city votes to repeal ‘bathroom’ ordinance

The city council in Oxford, Alabama, has voted 3-2 to repeal a new ordinance that would have prevented transgender people from using public restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity.

This measure was unprecedented in its establishment of criminal penalties for violations — including a $500 fine or six months in jail — and raised privacy and legal concerns regarding how the law would have been enforced.

The council’s action during a special meeting this week came within a 10-day recall window.

Also, the ordinance had not yet been signed by the mayor.

“It’s a great day in the state of Alabama and we commend Councilperson Charlotte Hubbard for leading the recall effort,” said HRC Alabama state director Eva Walton Kendrick in a news release.

She continued, “This sends a welcome message of inclusion to Oxford’s families, businesses and visitors, and sets an example for other communities that may be considering similar legislation. Fair-minded Americans do not believe in discrimination, and we must continue to educate one another on the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to all.”

Prior to the council vote, the ACLU issued a series of statements on the issue:

“I love the City of Oxford. While I don’t wish to fight the city, my son is worth fighting for. I hope the council does the right thing and recalls this ordinance,” said Oxford resident Sherry Matthews, whose transgender son would have been impacted by the ordinance.

“This proposed ordinance, like the hundreds we’ve seen introduced in legislatures across the country, many of which we are challenging, will do nothing to protect privacy or public safety, but will unfortunately harm Oxford residents and others who come here — solely based on who they are. We urge the city council to stand on the right side of history and indeed on the right side of the law and not write discrimination into law,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama.

“Discrimination has no place in 21st century Alabama. Yet, that was the path taken by the Oxford City Council when it voted to criminalize transgender people for simply using the restroom,” said Chinyere Ezie, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ezie continued: “Misunderstanding and fear should never guide public policy decisions. Transgender people, like anybody else, should not be treated differently simply because of who they are. Fortunately, city council members have the opportunity to repeal this ordinance. Not only is repeal the right thing to do, it will protect city taxpayers from a potentially expensive lawsuit.”

The council’s decision to recall the ordinance comes as similar proposals are being rejected at the state and local level across the country.

Earlier this week, the city council in Rockwall, Texas, unanimously rejected a measure proposed by Mayor Jim Pruitt that would have prohibited transgender people from using restrooms consistent with their gender identities.

Scores of community members also came to speak out against that proposal.

Also, earlier this year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard earlier this year vetoed legislation that limited restroom use for transgender children in public schools, and last month, the sponsor of a similar bill in Tennessee announced plans to pull the legislation from consideration this legislative session.

With its passage of the anti-transgender HB2, North Carolina became the first state to enact this type of legislation.

The state is facing a federal court challenge and fierce backlash and this week the U.S. Department of Justice notified Gov. Pat McCrory that the law violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

Alabama city criminalizes use of bathrooms in anti-transgender ordinance

The city council in Oxford, Alabama, has unanimously approved an ordinance preventing transgender people from using public bathrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity.

The ordinance goes beyond other regulations and imposes a $500 fine or six months in jail on violators.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, says the ordinance is unprecedented in its establishment of criminal penalties for violations and raises a myriad of privacy and legal concerns, including questions about how the law will be enforced.

The ordinance lacks clarity on whether all people in Oxford will be expected to produce birth certificates when using public facilities or, if not, how law enforcement officials will obtain evidence.

“This ordinance is a shameful and vile attack on the rights and privacy of transgender people,” said HRC Alabama state manager Eva Walton Kendrick. “Transgender people are our neighbors, our coworkers and our fellow churchgoers, and every Alabamian has the right to live their lives without fear of discrimination and prejudice. Throughout the country elected officials from both sides of the aisle, along with hundreds of business leaders and advocates throughout the country have resoundingly rejected these kinds of proposals, which only seek to demean and marginalize the transgender community.”

Anti-LGBT activists who back such measures say they are needed as a safeguard. These advocates for the policies most often offer up arguments about adult men posing as transgender women to prey upon girls in women’s restrooms.

However, states with laws protecting transgender people’s access to the appropriate bathroom have seen no increase in public safety incidents.

Additionally, a coalition of more than 250 sexual assault prevention organizations released a statement last week decrying policies like the one adopted in Oxford this week.

Oxford is now the first city in the nation to enact such a law.

With the passage of HB2 earlier this spring, North Carolina became the first state to enact an anti-transgender bathroom bill.

Oxford’s ordinance, however, is unprecedented in that it enumerates criminal penalties, including the potential for jail time, for violations. It also applies to bathrooms and locker rooms citywide, including in private businesses, which goes further than the provision in North Carolina’s law, which applies to government buildings, according to HRC.

New infractions emerge for Mobile Zoo called 1 of the worst

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the Mobile Zoo again for a series of new infractions.

The latest inspections at the Alabama zoo by the USDA found numerous infractions including food spoilage that led to maggot infestation, nails jutting out of structures and lack of employees.

The facility hosts more than 70 animals and only has two employees. There are additional volunteers, sometimes.

The USDA said the root of the infractions stem from the zoo being inadequately staffed to keep up with maintenance demands.

Officials also found that chicken was stored in an ice-chest with a temperature of 63 degrees.

The USDA inspector reported that the zoo owner, John Hightower, said that any meat leftover from feeding animals would be thrown out at the end of the day. By 3 p.m. the day after, the chicken was not disposed of.

The food concerns didn’t stop at refrigeration.

The inspector found the remnants of two-day-old meat in a leopard’s habitat that they described as “dry, dark and dirty.”

PETA has filed suit against the Mobile Zoo on behalf of Joe, the chimp who starred in the 1997 movie called “Buddy.” PETA alleges that keeping Joe in a solitary enclosure with no other chimps violates the Animal Welfare Act.

PETA has offered to relocate Joe to a much larger refuge where he can be social, free-of-charge. But Mobile Zoo has declined that offer.

Joe lives in an enclosed habitat that doesn’t have any grass, just dirt, an old tire and fencing around it. There’s an area where he can go inside and watch TV, something he loves.

Zoo manager Angela Enders has previously launched a fundraising campaign to help Joe, but had little success.

The zoo requires $6,000 a month to stay open, including food and utilities, and barely breaks even. Hightower posted a plea for $14,000 back in March. Now, the website advertises that if a patron brings in 10 lbs of meat from Food For Less, he or she can feed the big cats.

Alabama city spent $16,000 to get people to Trump rally

An Alabama television station reports that thousands of dollars in city funding was spent to transport people to Donald Trump’s political rally in Mobile, drawing criticism from a city councilman.

WKRG-TV reports a total of more than $16,000 in taxpayer money was spent, mostly for police overtime and buses to Trump’s Aug. 21 rally at a football stadium.

Mobile City Council Member Fred Richardson says it wasn’t the city’s responsibility to rent buses for Trump’s campaign.

Richardson said the city should have told the presidential candidate, “You’re a billionaire! Get your own buses!”

Colby Cooper, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Trump’s campaign spent $5,120 for transportation. But Cooper said interest in the rally grew, and he feared thousands of people would be stranded at shuttle pickup locations, making it a public safety concern.

Louisiana, Alabama cut Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, possibly violating federal law

Louisiana and Alabama may be violating federal law by ending state Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, federal health officials warned the states this week after both announced they were cutting off the payments.

Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that the federal Medicaid agency notified the states of the possible violation.

“Longstanding Medicaid laws prohibit states from restricting individuals who have coverage through Medicaid from receiving care from a qualified provider,” Griffis said in a statement. “By restricting which provider a woman could choose to receive care from, women could lose access to critical preventive care, such as cancer screenings.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, announced Aug. 3 that his administration was ending provider agreements that reimbursed Planned Parenthood for providing health services to low-income patients through Medicaid.

Republican Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley followed with a similar announcement three days later.

The governors cited secretly recorded videos released by an anti-abortion group showing Planned Parenthood officials describing how they provide aborted fetus tissue for medical research.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, spoke to health agency officials in both states shortly after each announcement, referencing federal law that requires Medicaid beneficiaries to get covered services from any qualified provider.

CMS could withhold federal Medicaid funds to the states if it deems them out of compliance with federal law, and Planned Parenthood has said it is considering a lawsuit in Louisiana. Federal courts have overturned previous attempts in Arizona and Indiana to disqualify Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursements.

In the South, withholding funding would have the most impact in Louisiana, where more dollars have been paid to Planned Parenthood. Alabama’s Medicaid program has paid Planned Parenthood health clinics in Mobile and Birmingham only about $4,400 over the past two years for contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood doesn’t currently provide abortions in Louisiana, but offers cancer screenings, birth control, gynecology exams, sexually transmitted disease treatment and other health services in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The state had paid more than $287,000 in reimbursements to the organization for such services provided to Medicaid patients in the last budget year, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Neither state has changed its approach to the organization’s clinics since the federal warnings.

Olivia Watkins Hwang, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana health department, cited a state law that allows the termination of any Medicaid provider agreement within 30 days. She said the department doesn’t believe it has violated federal law because other Medicaid providers offer the same services as Planned Parenthood.

But Melissa Flournoy, Louisiana state director for Planned Parenthood, said Jindal’s decision will lessen health services for more than 4,300 Medicaid patients who got care from the organization’s clinics in the state.

Republicans around the country have targeted Planned Parenthood after several videos were released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress.

The center said the videos showed Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood said the organization receives legal payment only for the cost of the procedure and requires a mother’s consent before the tissue is given to researchers.