- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) — A truck driver accused in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants who were crammed into his sweltering tractor-trailer was convicted yesterday of smuggling but was spared the death penalty.

The 2003 journey was the deadliest human smuggling attempt in U.S. history.

Tyrone Williams, 34, was convicted on 38 counts of transporting illegal immigrants. U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore took the death penalty off the table because the jury could not agree on whether Williams bears direct responsibility for the deaths.

The judge also declared a mistrial on 20 counts of conspiracy and harboring after the jury deadlocked on those charges. One of those charges also carried the death penalty.

Prosecutors said during the nine-day trial that Williams was paid $7,500 by a smuggling ring to transport more than 70 illegal immigrants from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston in May 2003. The refrigeration unit on Williams’ trailer was not turned on for the trip, and authorities said temperatures inside reached 173 degrees.

Survivors testified that as the heat in the trailer became unbearable, the immigrants took off their sweat-drenched clothes and crowded around holes they punched in the truck so they could breathe. They also kicked out a signal light to try to get the attention of passing motorists.

Prosecutors said Williams ignored the immigrants’ screams and their banging on the sides of the truck and even called the operators of the smuggling ring on his cell phone to demand more money because he feared that they would damage his rig.

Williams eventually abandoned the trailer about 100 miles southwest of Houston after he opened the doors and found some of the immigrants lying in the trailer. He was arrested a few hours later at a Houston hospital.

Seventeen persons, including a 5-year-old boy, died inside the trailer of dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Two others died later.

Defense attorneys argued that although Williams was guilty of transporting the immigrants, the ring’s other members were responsible for the deaths because they packed too many people into the trailer.

Defense attorney Craig Washington said Williams could not understand the immigrants’ pleas because he does not speak Spanish, but when Williams found out what was happening, he bought 55 bottles of water for them at a truck stop and shoved them through the hole in the trailer.

However, Fatima Holloway, who rode along with Williams, said she pleaded with him to help the immigrants sooner. She said both of them could hear the immigrants banging on the sides of the trailer.

Williams “was just trying to get rid of them. He was just concerned about his truck,” she testified.

Williams, a Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., was the only one of 14 defendants in the case to face the death penalty.

In December, two other defendants in the case were convicted of various smuggling charges and are awaiting sentencing. Five others have pleaded guilty. One man remains a fugitive.

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