HOUSTON – A truck driver was convicted Monday for his role in the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt, in which 19 illegal immigrants died from dehydration, overheating and suffocation.
The trial's punishment phase was set to begin on Wednesday and was expected to last about a week. Jurors will decide whether the driver, Tyrone Williams, should be sentenced to death or life in prison.
The federal jury convicted Williams of 58 counts for the transport and deaths of illegal immigrants during a May 2003 smuggling attempt. His sweltering tractor-trailer was packed with more than 70 immigrants who scraped at the insulation, broke out the taillights and screamed for help in escaping the tomblike trailer.
Williams had no visible reaction when the verdict was read, but accepted a long hug from his lawyer, Craig Washington, before being led away by U.S. marshals.
"I am deeply disappointed," Washington said.
Washington told reporters he would present about 20 witnesses during the punishment phase to help the jury decide "whether they should take this man's life."
Prosecutors declined comment on the verdict, but said each side would have about three or four days to present sentencing evidence to the jury.
Prosecutors said Williams was responsible for the deaths because he didn't free the immigrants or turn on the trailer's air conditioning, which could have saved their lives. Some survivors testified they thought the air conditioning had been turned on.
Washington said his client transported the illegal immigrants but wasn't responsible for their deaths because he didn't know they were dying until it was too late. Washington blamed another smuggling ring member for causing the deaths by overstuffing the trailer.
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.
Last year, a jury convicted Williams on 38 transporting counts, but he avoided a death sentence because the jury couldn't agree on his role in the smuggling attempt. The jury deadlocked on 20 other counts.
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.
In his retrial, Williams faced 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants, 20 of which were death penalty eligible.
Since the new jury convicted him on counts eligible for the death penalty, it will hear evidence in a punishment phase before deliberating on whether to sentence Williams to death or up to life in prison.
The jury deliberated for a little more than four days, beginning Nov. 27 and taking a three-day weekend. They resumed deliberating for about two hours on Monday before returning the verdict.