HOUSTON – A jury that has heard four weeks of sometimes emotionally wrenching testimony from survivors of the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt will soon get the case — without hearing directly from the defendant himself.
Closing statements were set for Monday in the retrial of Tyrone Williams, charged with 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.
The case, which has been paused since Nov. 20 because of Thanksgiving, had some last-minute drama last week as an attorney for Williams told the judge outside the presence of the jury that his client, against his advice, had expressed interested in testifying.
But after talking with Washington, Williams changed his mind.
Authorities say Williams was part of a smuggling ring that tried to transport more than 70 illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic in his airtight tractor-trailer from South Texas to Houston in May 2003.
Williams abandoned the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston, after the immigrants succumbed to the heat inside. Nineteen of them died from dehydration, overheating and suffocation.
Prosecutors argued Williams ignored the immigrants' cries for help during the four-hour trip and failed to turn on his trailer's air conditioning unit, which they said might have prevented the deaths. Several survivors called by Williams' attorneys testified the air conditioning unit was turned on during the trip.
During the journey, the immigrants' body temperatures rose as high as 113 degrees.
Survivors testified they couldn't understand how Williams didn't hear or feel as the immigrants desperately banged on the trailer's walls and shouted they were dying and needed to be released.
Washington countered that his client couldn't hear the cries from the packed trailer until it was too late.
A jury convicted Williams last year on 38 transporting counts, but he avoided a death sentence because the jury couldn't agree on his role in the smuggling attempt. However, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the decision, saying the verdict didn't count because the jury failed to specify his role in the crime.
Williams, 35, a Jamaican citizen who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., is the only one of 14 people charged in the case who is facing the death penalty.
So far, seven people have been sentenced to prison in the case. Sentencing for three others is pending. Charges against two were dismissed, and one man remains a fugitive.