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Smuggler's life on the line

He drove and dumped the trailer that claimed 19 illegal immigrants. The death penalty case would turn on intent.

March 19, 2007|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

Houston — IN his opening statement, the attorney for truck driver Tyrone Williams conceded a central point. Yes, the lawyer declared, Williams was "clearly guilty" of hauling illegal immigrants in a sealed trailer -- a tortuous, four-hour passage up the Rio Grande Valley that 19 of them did not survive.

It was also true, added Craig Washington, that once his client discovered all those "poor people" piled in stacks, he hastily unhooked his trailer and high-tailed it for Houston, concocting an alibi on the fly: "He doesn't get any merit badges for that," the attorney allowed.

As these concessions made clear, the United States vs. Tyrone Mapletoft Williams would not be a search to determine who was behind the wheel one steamy May night in 2003, or whether the trucker was in league with smugglers.

Rather, the trial would turn on intent, on what Williams knew, or should have known, was unfolding in the back of his 18-wheeler as he rolled up U.S. Highway 77 -- windows down, music on the CD player, a young woman at his side.

Seeking the death penalty, the prosecution painted Williams as a "vile and heartless truck driver" who ignored pounding and pleas from inside his trailer. In the defense telling, the truck driver was a poorly used tool of smugglers, who distracted him as they overloaded his trailer at a field outside the border town of Harlingen, Texas, and then, once the rig was underway, tripled the length of the journey.

The trial opened on a Monday in late October 2006, in the 11th-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal. It was not completed until mid-January, in part because of holiday breaks, in part because of illness, and in part because of the nature of the contested ground.

This was a courtroom struggle fought on the margins of the story line, with protracted wrangling, for example, over nuances such as whether Williams' passenger in the truck cab, a drug courier named Fatima Holloway, had heard a "bumping" or a "banging" coming from the trailer.

"Am I correct, Ms. Holloway," Washington asked during cross-examination, "that the description you gave to the noise here in your testimony ... you described it as a 'banging' noise, did you not?"

"Yes, I did."

"OK. And my question is: Did you describe it on May 24th of 2003" -- in a debriefing by investigators -- "as being a 'bumping' noise?"

"I may have. I don't remember."

"Is there a distinction in your mind between 'bumping' and 'banging'?"

"Yes."

"Which is louder?"

"Banging."

So it went, witness after witness, with the lawyers lingering over points that, though strategically pivotal, could seem almost picayune given the grotesque dimensions of the tragedy: Exactly how many illegal immigrants boarded? Who closed the trailer doors? What was the greater cause of death: a lack of oxygen or excessive heat?

Survivors speak

THE Bob Casey Federal Courthouse, a 12-story box of a building, operates on a centrally controlled air system. Whoever sets the temperature evidently is fond of sweaters. Jurors quickly took to wearing down vests and shawls into Rosenthal's cavernous courtroom. One attorney kept a woolen throw on his lap. During closing arguments, it was possible to see the foggy breath of attorneys as they addressed the jury.

The persistent chill seemed to mock the testimony of survivors who, one by one, came into court and described how the terrible heat in the trailer tore at their bodies. Much of the recounting entered the record almost as boilerplate, as the prosecutor worked down a checklist of questions needed to pin down specific elements of the charges.

Here, for example, was Dilcia Sambrano-Molina, a 24-year-old Honduran with a long ponytail and a shy smile, testifying about conditions in the trailer at the journey's end:

Did there come a time when she felt she "crossed over to the other side?"

Yes, she said through an interpreter, speaking Spanish in almost a whisper.

And how did your head feel at this point?

"It's like you feel when you are very, very scared, big scared, like you are not there."

How did your eyes feel?

"Watery. I was crying. I felt like my eyes were going to pop out."

How did your throat feel?

"Like when you can't breathe, like someone is choking you."

How did your skin feel?

"I don't think I felt my skin. I couldn't feel my hands."

She was one of 55 passengers -- 43 men and 12 women -- rounded up by immigration agents in the hours, and in some cases days, after Williams abandoned the trailer at a truck stop near the town of Victoria, 200 miles north of Harlingen.

Some had been too overcome to leave the truck stop, or even the trailer itself. Many others had staggered into a horse pasture and sunk down in the grass. When paramedics and police officers arrived, these survivors began, as one first responder remembered, "popping up like little moles all over that field."

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