HOUSTON – Jurors began deliberations Monday on charges that Tyrone Williams (search) let more than a dozen illegal immigrants die in the back of his unventilated truck because he was greedy.
Williams is accused of driving and abandoning a trailer at the center of the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt. His attorneys argued that he couldn't hear the immigrants' screams for help.
If convicted, Williams could be executed for his role in the May 2003 smuggling attempt that resulted in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants (search). He faces 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.
The jury of five men and seven women got the case late Friday, then got a weekend recess.
If the jury convicts him of any of the 20 counts which are eligible for the death penalty, it will hear further evidence against him in the punishment phase of the trial and then decide whether he should be executed.
If it finds Williams guilty only of non-death penalty eligible counts, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore (search) will sentence him.
Prosecutors said Williams was paid $7,500 by a smuggling ring to transport more than 70 illegal immigrants in his sweltering tractor-trailer from Harlingen to Houston.
They told jurors Williams ignored the immigrants' screams for help during the four-hour journey, abandoning the airtight trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Seventeen people died inside the trailer from dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation, and two others died later.
Lead defense attorney Craig Washington maintained that while Williams was guilty of transporting the immigrants, the responsibility for the 19 deaths fell on the other members of the smuggling ring, whom he said got greedy and loaded the trailer with too many people for safe transport.
"Nobody sees how he really is. This is not something he would have done intentionally," said Coretta Williams, the truck driver's sister.
Williams, 34, a Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., is the only one of 14 defendants in the case who could get the death penalty.
Federal law allows capital punishment in fatal smuggling cases. Prosecutors have said Williams faces execution if convicted because he alone had the power to free the immigrants.
Four people, including the alleged ringleader, have pleaded guilty and two others were convicted of various charges in the case and still face sentencing. Others are awaiting trial. One man got a 14-month sentence and a woman had charges dismissed.
Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against three people who fled to Mexico but were returned to the United States last month to face charges. Another man remains a fugitive.