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Trucker May Face Death Penalty

A New York man has pleaded not guilty in the case of migrants smuggled in an unventilated trailer. Nineteen people died.

March 16, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Federal prosecutors said Monday that they would seek the death penalty against a truck driver accused of participating in a human-smuggling operation that ended with the deaths of 19 undocumented immigrants.

Tyrone Williams, 33, of Schenectady, N.Y. -- who has pleaded not guilty to charges of transporting and harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to transport immigrants -- is scheduled to stand trial in June.

The decision announced by Michael Shelby, U.S. attorney for Texas' southern district, marks the latest development in a case that brought renewed attention to the desperate journeys made each year by thousands of people seeking to come to the United States.

At least 12 people have been charged in connection with the smuggling operation; nine have been taken into custody. Shelby previously announced that he would not seek the death penalty against the other defendants.

In those cases, Shelby said, he would not have been able to prove that they "intended to cause" the deaths of the immigrants, as federal law requires. In Williams' case, according to a statement e-mailed to reporters Monday evening, prosecutors found that the defendant "intentionally acted with reckless disregard for human life, creating a grave risk of death."

That, Shelby said, surpassed the government's threshold for seeking the death penalty.

"Where an act, intentionally undertaken in reckless disregard for human life, directly results in the single largest loss of life in any contemporary smuggling operation, justice and the law demand the accused face the ultimate punishment upon conviction," Shelby said in the statement.

He could not be reached for additional comment.

The decision shocked Williams' attorneys. They noted that federal investigators had described Williams as a mid-level worker in the operation and a Harlingen, Texas, woman as the mastermind. The woman, Karla Patricia Chavez, 25, is among those charged.

"This is for all the marbles," said Craig A. Washington Sr., a Houston attorney representing Williams.

"There is nothing that our government can do that is more serious than to set out ... to take a human being's life," he said.

Washington said it was clear that Williams did not intend to harm anyone. "If you have to make a vociferous argument that Williams' conduct crosses a 'threshold,' you are presupposing that others see a weakness in that argument," Washington said. "They are going to have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this man knew ... that death was a likely result of his actions. I think at the end of the day, a jury would respectfully disagree with that."

Authorities believe that Williams, a commercial driver who frequently picked up loads of produce near the U.S.-Mexico border, was paid $7,500 to drive a truckload of immigrants from the border to Houston in May.

Authorities said more than 70 people -- from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala -- who had crossed the border and been staying at a safe house were packed into the back of the tractor-trailer rig, which was locked and unventilated.

The migrants were so desperate that they tore through the truck's insulation and metal walls to make breathing holes, an official has said.

Authorities allege that Williams pulled over at a truck stop near Victoria, Texas, and then panicked and fled when he realized that many of the immigrants were in physical distress.

Sheriff's deputies discovered the bodies of 17 people, including a 5-year-old boy. Two other people died a short time later at area hospitals.

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