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Driver gets life on prison in deadly human smuggling case

After a retrial, Tyrone Williams is spared the death penalty on his 36th birthday.

January 19, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A truck driver was sentenced to life in prison without parole Thursday for his role in the deaths of 19 people who suffocated in an airless trailer during a disastrous human smuggling attempt in 2003.

Tyrone Williams put his head down, then stood stock-still as U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal read the jury's sentence. His lead lawyer, Craig Washington, wiped away what he later said were "tears of joy" that his client's life was spared.

Federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Williams, 36, under a 1994 federal statute that made human smuggling attempts that result in death a capital offense.

A jury convicted Williams on all 58 counts against him in December; his first trial ended with a hung jury in March 2005. The retrial's punishment phase began this month.

Jurors deliberated for a little more than five days before unanimously agreeing on 19 life sentences. Williams still faces sentencing on Aug. 23 for the remaining 38 counts of harboring and transporting immigrants, and for a conspiracy count.

Outside the courthouse, U.S. Atty. Don DeGabrielle said prosecutors "did everything we could to encourage them to impose a sentence of death. Nineteen life sentences is not something to be disappointed about.... The jury imposed the second most serious sentence it could have imposed." Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Rodriguez, lead prosecutor in the case, stood silently behind his boss.

In May 2003, Williams drove more than 70 illegal immigrants in a trailer from south Texas. As temperatures inside the locked trailer rose, the 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 into the trip, 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.

Williams' lawyers admitted that the defendant, a Jamaican national, was guilty of transporting the riders in his truck. But in order to impose death, the jury had to find that Williams intended to cause their deaths.

Jurors said after the trial that although Williams should have known that the immigrants crammed inside the trailer were in trouble, he didn't set out to kill them. "At no point in time ... was there intent for anyone to die," said the jury foreman, one of three jurors who agreed to speak to reporters if their names were not used. "Our conclusion was that he didn't deserve [death].... As a group, we feel good and at peace with ourselves [and] with our decision."

They said that each day before beginning their deliberations, jurors stopped for 19 seconds to remember the dead. "These are people, they're not cattle," said juror No. 9, a teacher. "If they were here illegally, it doesn't matter, our justice system says they're still people and deserve to live."

Washington, Williams' lawyer, said he did not consider the death penalty appropriate in a smuggling case. "I think they wasted $7 million in taxpayers' money," he said of the extended trial. "We're grateful to God and to the jury for saving Tyrone's life."

At least one juror seemed to question why the smuggling ringleaders did not face death. Prosecutors should "go after the smuggler and not the last one in the supply chain," said juror No. 2, an engineer.

The jurors said they methodically answered the 440 questions listed on their verdict forms, some vacillating about punishment as they reviewed the case. The evidence, which included photos of the bloated bodies and wrenching testimony from surviving family members, reduced others to tears.

After the trial, Rosenthal said counseling would be made available, according to jurors.

Thursday was Williams' 36th birthday. His family, who begged the jury to spare his life during emotional testimony at the sentencing trial, was not present when his sentence was announced.


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