HOUSTON – A truck driver was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison Thursday for his role in the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt — a journey that ended in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants crammed in a sweltering tractor-trailer.
Tyrone Williams, 36, was convicted last month of 58 counts of conspiracy and harboring and transporting immigrants.
A jury deliberated for a little more than 5 days before deciding to send Williams to prison without the possibility of parole for each of the immigrants who died from dehydration, overheating and suffocation in his truck during the 2003 trip from South Texas to Houston.
Williams looked down as the verdict was read and gave no visible reaction. His attorney, former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington, wept and wiped his eyes with a tissue.
Later, Washington said he was crying tears of joy.
"We're grateful to God and to the jury for saving Tyrone's life," Washington said.
Prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez looked grim after the sentence was announced as his boss, U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle, spoke to reporters.
"We did everything we could to impose a sentence of death. Nineteen life sentences is not something to be disappointed about," DeGabrielle said. "One human being had the chance to let those people out. That was Tyrone Williams."
In May 2003, his tractor-trailer was packed with more than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic. As temperatures rose inside the airtight refrigerator truck, the immigrants kicked walls, clawed at insulation, broke out taillights and screamed for help.
Williams, apparently frightened at the sight of the dead bodies strewn inside his truck when he opened the door, abandoned the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston.
"Justice is served from today's sentencing," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Julie Myers said in a written statement. "We hope this significant sentence will help dissuade potential alien smugglers away from this dangerous, dehumanizing and illegal business."
Jurors, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said they began each day of deliberations with 19 seconds of silence in memory of Williams' victims.
"It will probably be a very long time before any of us passes an 18-wheeler on the freeway without looking at it twice," said one juror.
Williams' attorneys argued he never intended for the immigrants to die and didn't know they were dying until it was too late. They blamed the deaths on other members of the smuggling ring who overstuffed the trailer.
Williams' family, including his mother and father, begged the jury to spare his life during emotional testimony presented at the retrial's punishment phase.
Prosecutors said Williams earned a death sentence because he intentionally caused the immigrants' deaths by not freeing them when he knew their lives were in danger. They also noted he failed to take life-saving measures, like turning on the trailer's air conditioning, although some survivors testified they thought it had been turned on.
Relatives of the victims also testified, demanding justice and telling jurors their loved ones did not deserve to die the way they did.
Williams, an immigrant from Jamaica who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., was the only one of 14 people charged in the case who faced the death penalty.
In 2005, a jury convicted him of 38 transporting counts, but he avoided a death sentence because the jury couldn't agree on his role in the smuggling attempt. A court later voided the verdict, saying the jury failed to specify his role in the crime.
Williams still faces sentencing on Aug. 23 for the remaining 38 counts of harboring and transporting immigrants and for the conspiracy count. The maximum sentence for the conspiracy count is life in prison.