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Trucker guilty in migrant deaths

The Texas driver could get the death penalty. A trek in his hot trailer was fatal to 19 people.

December 05, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

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

Tyrone Williams, 35, faces a possible death sentence or life in prison. The punishment phase of the trial will start Wednesday and is expected to last about a week.

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

"I'm deeply disappointed," Washington said outside the courtroom.

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

In May 2003, Williams hauled more than 70 illegal immigrants in a sweltering trailer from south Texas to a truck stop near 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 Williams opened the door about 3 1/2 hours later, 17 people had died of dehydration, overheating or suffocation. Two others died later.

Williams abandoned the trailer at a truck stop and fled to Houston, 100 miles away. He was arrested after walking into a hospital complaining of anxiety.

During the trial, the jury of seven women and five men 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 boy who had died in his father's arms.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Rodriguez told jurors that Williams was a "vile and heartless truck driver" who ignored the suffering of the riders.

Williams' lawyers said he didn't know how many people were packed into his trailer, and didn't understand the immigrants' 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 to face death. His lawyers have said that Williams, who is black, was singled out because of his race.

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lianne.hart@latimes.com

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