HOUSTON – A federal appeals court has ordered a new trial for the truck driver convicted in the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt — a journey that ended in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants crammed into his sweltering trailer.
The ruling means Tyrone Williams could once more face the death penalty.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the verdict was invalid because the jury failed to decide whether Williams was directly responsible for the deaths.
When the jury couldn't agree on that question before Williams was sentenced last year, the judge removed the death penalty as an option. Prosecutors appealed.
The appeals court also ordered U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore removed from the case because of its "extraordinary history" and Gilmore's prior complaints about a crowded docket. The new trial will be scheduled once a new judge is chosen.
Williams' attorney said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.
"I'm probably more disappointed than I've ever been in any decision my life," Craig Washington said. "But it ain't over."
More than 70 illegal immigrants screamed and clawed at the walls of Williams' truck in 2003 before he abandoned them 100 miles southwest of Houston. Williams was the only one of 14 people indicted in the case to face the death penalty.
Last week, Karla Patricia Chavez Joya was convicted of leading the operation and sentenced to 17 years in prison.