HOUSTON — A judge Thursday said prosecutors failed to prove that a truck driver facing trial in the nation's deadliest human-smuggling attempt was guilty of 19 charges of harboring illegal immigrants.
U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore did not immediately throw out those charges against Tyrone Williams, but asked prosecutors and defense attorneys to submit arguments before recessing for the day.
Williams, 34, still faces 39 other charges, including conspiracy to harbor, conceal and transport illegal immigrants and transporting immigrants in a manner that resulted in serious injury and death.
The charges that could be dropped carry a possible death sentence, but so do some of the remaining counts. Gilmore refused a request by Williams' attorney to remove the death penalty as a possible punishment.
Williams is accused of transporting more than 70 illegal immigrants through South Texas in May 2003 in the back of his tractor-trailer. Seventeen immigrants died after succumbing to the heat in the airless trailer; two others died later.
After the prosecution finished presenting its case Thursday, Gilmore said she heard no evidence that Williams had harbored immigrants.
Federal prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez argued that a person can be found guilty of harboring if he conceals, shelters or harbors illegal immigrants. "In this case, the evidence shows he concealed the immigrants," he said.
Gilmore said she was reluctant to expand the statute, which she said defines harboring as hiding illegal immigrants in a house.
Earlier Thursday, Fatima Holloway, who accompanied Williams on the smuggling run, testified that the immigrants banged against the walls of the tractor-trailer, deflating Williams' key defense that he was unaware they were suffering, let alone dying.
Holloway said Williams finally stopped the big rig at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. He detached the truck from the trailer and drove with Holloway to Houston after realizing some of the immigrants had died.
Federal law allows for the death penalty in smuggling cases. Williams is the only one of 14 defendants facing execution.