Jury convicts trucker in human smuggling deaths

December 05, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON -- A Texas jury convicted a truck driver yesterday on all 58 counts against him for his role in the deaths of 19 people during a bungled smuggling attempt.

Tyrone Williams, 35, could be sentenced to death or to life in prison. The punishment phase of the trial will begin tomorrow and is expected to last about a week.

Williams stared ahead and showed no emotion when the verdict was read, but he hugged his lawyer, Craig Washington, before being led away by U.S. marshals.

"I'm deeply disappointed," Washington said later.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the verdict, but they told U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal that they expect to call about 25 witnesses in the sentencing trial.

In May 2003, Williams hauled more than 70 immigrants in a sweltering trailer from south Texas to a truck stop about 100 miles from Houston. As temperatures inside the trailer rose, the increasingly desperate riders peeled off their clothes, punched out tail lights for air and shouted for help.

By the time the trailer's door was opened, 17 people had died of dehydration, overheating or suffocation. Two others died later.

Williams abandoned the trailer and fled to Houston. He was arrested after walking into a hospital and complaining of anxiety.

During the trial, the jury watched as grieving family members from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic identified their relatives from grisly photos. One showed a 5-year-old who had died in the arms of his father.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Rodriguez told jurors that Williams was a "vile and heartless truck driver" who ignored the suffering of the riders. Defense lawyers said that Williams didn't know how many people were packed into his trailer and that he didn't understand their cries for help, which were in Spanish.

Williams' first trial ended in a hung jury in March 2005.

Of the 14 people charged in the case, Williams is the only defendant facing a death penalty case.

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