HOUSTON – A truck driver was convicted Wednesday for his role in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants who clawed at the walls of his sweltering tractor-trailer and screamed for air as he smuggled them across Texas.
The 2003 journey was the deadliest human smuggling attempt in U.S. history.
Tyrone Williams (search), 34, was found guilty on 38 counts of transporting illegal immigrants but was spared the death penalty because the jury could not agree on whether he bore direct responsibility for the deaths.
The judge also declared a mistrial on 20 counts of conspiracy and harboring after the jury deadlocked on those charges during 2 1/2 days of deliberations. One of those charges also carried the death penalty.
Williams, who smiled when he learned he would not face the death penalty, could get life in prison.
Prosecutors said during the nine-day trial that Williams was paid $7,500 by a smuggling ring to transport more than 70 illegal immigrants from Harlingen to Houston in May 2003. The refrigeration unit on Williams' trailer was not turned on for the trip, and authorities said temperatures inside reached 173 degrees.
Survivors testified that as the heat in the trailer became unbearable, the immigrants took off their sweat-drenched clothes and crowded around holes they punched in the truck so they could breathe. They also kicked out a signal light to try to get the attention of passing motorists.
Prosecutors said Williams ignored the immigrants' screams and their banging on the sides of the truck, and even called the operators of the smuggling ring on his cell phone to demand more money because he feared they would damage his rig.
Williams eventually abandoned the trailer about 100 miles southwest of Houston after opening the doors and finding some of the immigrants lying in the trailer. He was arrested a few hours later.
Seventeen people, including a 5-year-old boy, died inside the trailer of dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Two others died later.
Authorities who found the trailer at the truck stop described seeing piles of half-naked bodies piled 4 feet high on the vomit-covered floor and bloody claw marks on its doors where the immigrants had tried to get out.
U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore (search) set an April 11 hearing on whether to retry Williams on the 20 deadlocked counts, but no sentencing date was set. Williams could face the death penalty again if prosecutors decide to retry him on a conspiracy count.
Defense attorneys argued that while Williams was guilty of transporting the immigrants, the ring's other members were responsible for the deaths because they packed too many people into the trailer.
Defense attorney Craig Washington said Williams could not understand the immigrants' pleas because he does not speak Spanish, but when Williams found out what was happening, he bought 55 bottles of water for them at a truck stop and shoved them through the hole in the trailer.
"We don't give the death penalty in this country for an accident," Washington said. "Tragedies happen everyday. But every tragedy is not a crime."
However, Fatima Holloway (search), who rode along with Williams, said she pleaded with him to help the immigrants sooner. She said both of them could hear the immigrants banging on the sides of the trailer.
Williams "was just trying to get rid of them. He was just concerned about his truck," she testified.
Williams, a Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., was the only one of 14 defendants in the case to face the death penalty. Federal law allows capital punishment in fatal smuggling cases.
Washington had argued that Williams faced the death penalty because he is black. Prosecutors have said he deserved such punishment because he alone could have freed the immigrants.
In December, two other defendants in the case were convicted of various smuggling charges and are awaiting sentencing. Five others have pleaded guilty. One man remains a fugitive.