Appeals court vacates truck driver's life sentences for nation's deadliest human smuggling try

HOUSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday overturned the multiple life sentences a truck driver received for his role in the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt, more than seven years after the bodies of 19 illegal immigrants were discovered in a tractor-trailer.

Prosecutors had sought death sentences for Tyrone Williams on 19 counts of transporting illegal immigrants, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Williams was not actually eligible for capital punishment. The court also said that a judge, not a jury, should have sentenced Williams on those counts.

The jury had sentenced Williams to life in prison without parole on those 19 counts in the failed May 2003 smuggling attempt.

The appeals court ruled that Williams should be re-sentenced by the Houston federal judge who presided over his trial.

The smuggling attempt began in the south Texas city of Harlingen, where more than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic were packed inside Williams' tractor-trailer for the trip to Houston, about 330 miles to the northeast.

Prosecutors said Williams never turned on the air conditioning in the airtight truck. As temperatures skyrocketed, the immigrants kicked walls, clawed at insulation, broke out tail lights and screamed for help.

Nineteen died from dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Williams abandoned the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Williams, an immigrant from Jamaica who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., was later arrested in Houston.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court wrote in its 34-page ruling that under the Federal Death Penalty Act, Williams needed to have committed an act of violence to be eligible for capital punishment.

Prosecutors had argued Williams did so by not letting the immigrants out of his trailer and by not turning on the truck's refrigeration unit.

But the judges ruled that an act of violence must involve the use of physical force.

"Williams' conduct during the smuggling trip, despicable as it was, fell short of the statutory minimum to subject Williams to the possibility of a death sentence," the panel wrote.

Seth Kretzer, one of Williams' appeals attorneys, said he was pleased with the ruling.

"I do not dispute by any means the horrific nature of what happened. The argument I made was: No matter how horrific the results were in this case, there was no act of violence here," Kretzer said. "Williams never wanted to injure these people."

The U.S. attorneys office in Houston issued a written statement saying it was reviewing the court's decision and considering its options.

In total, Williams was convicted on 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. Jurors settled on life sentences for 19 counts of transporting illegal immigrants. Prosecutors dismissed 19 harboring counts that Williams had been convicted of by jurors. On the remaining counts, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal gave Williams sentences ranging from 20 years to nearly 34 years.