Charges Tossed Against 1 in Smuggling Case

A federal judge Thursday dismissed charges against one of three people accused of being part of the ring authorities contended was responsible for the nation's deadliest human smuggling (search) attempt.

Prosecutors did not prove Claudia Carrizales de Villa (search) profited from her work at a restaurant authorities argued was really a sham business intended to feed illegal immigrants who were hidden in houses, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ruled.

Gilmore has been presiding over the trial where Carrizales and two others are being tried on charges related to the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants who died in a stifling hot truck trailer abandoned last year outside Victoria in South Texas.

After Justice Department lawyers rested their case Thursday, Carrizales' lawyers asked that charges against her be dropped. Gilmore agreed, saying prosecutors did not "really have evidence she was involved in any of this for commercial or financial gain."

The judge also characterized the government's attempts to connect the woman to the smuggling ring as "grasping at straws."

Prosecutors had objected to the motion from defense lawyers and said they would appeal the dismissal, arguing Carrizales at least could be convicted of harboring illegal immigrants.

Gilmore refused to grant similar motions from lawyers for the two others being tried with Carrizales — Victor Jesus Rodriguez (search) and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar (search).

All three had been charged with helping to hide and transport a group of more than 70 immigrants from South Texas to Houston in May 2003. Defense attorneys said the three had minimal involvement.

Carrizales began crying and hugged her lawyers as the charges against her were dismissed.