Victoria truck case will be first time execution sought
Harvey Rice, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 16
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday the government would seek the death penalty against a man accused of driving a truck found with dead undocumented immigrants near Victoria. It’s the first time capital punishment will be sought in a human-smuggling case.
Truck driver Tyrone Williams, 32, a Jamaican immigrant from Schenectady, N.Y., is accused of driving a sealed tractor-trailer crammed with more than 74 undocumented immigrants, 19 of whom died. It is one of the largest instances of smuggling fatalities in U.S. history.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said.
Williams’ attorney, Craig Washington, said, “I do truly believe that the government has missed its mark and will not get a death sentence against Mr. Williams.”
Washington said he planned to go to the federal detention center where Williams has been held since his arrest in May 2003 and inform him in person of the government’s decision.
He also will phone Williams’ family. “It’s probably one of the worst calls I’ve ever had to make,” Washington said.
The decision also means that Williams’ case will be severed from the trial of eight other members of an alleged immigrant-smuggling ring who are charged in the case.
“I believe the person most responsible for the dilemma everyone is in is the truck driver,” said attorney John LaGrappe, who represents alleged ringleader Karla Patricia Chavez Joya.
“There are so many people who died. Regardless of the circumstances, that makes your defense more difficult,” LaGrappe said. “It’s going to be a very emotional case.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said the reasons for seeking the death penalty were in a sealed motion filed with the court.
“All I can say is that this has been part of a very deliberate process,” DeGabrielle said.
Williams must be found guilty in the first phase of a jury trial of recklessly putting the lives of the immigrants in jeopardy before prosecutors can seek the death sentence in a second phase.
DeGabrielle said the discovery of the names of two previously unidentified immigrants who died led to a new indictment that increases the number of deaths Williams is charged with from 17 to 19.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Rodriguez, lead prosecutor in the Williams case, said aggravating factors include accusations that Williams knowingly created a grave risk of death for the immigrants who survived, committed an offense in a cruel or depraved manner by causing the serious abuse of victims, and that his alleged victims were vulnerable due to age, youth or infirmity.
Of 14 people indicted on charges in June in connection with the smuggling deaths, nine are in custody and five are at large.
Ashcroft decided late last year not to seek the death penalty against six of of those in custody. Two others were not eligible for the death penalty.
The case is one of the few in which a congressman has lobbied the Justice Department to seek the death penalty. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, sent a letter to Ashcroft last month urging him to make an example of Williams by seeking the harshest penalty.
The Justice Department grappled with the decision, asking U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore three times for additional time. Gilmore originally set a Nov. 1 deadline, but the department asked for a 90-day extension, then a 30-day extension, and finally a two-week extension.
In seeking to persuade a skeptical Gilmore to grant a third extension, Shelby said that such a weighty decision required much deliberation.
Williams, who has a wife and two children, is accused of driving a truck towing a sealed trailer crammed with at least 74 undocumented immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
The abandoned trailer was discovered last May 14 at a truck stop south of Victoria with 17 bodies inside.
Two more immigrants died in the hospital. The autopsy reports said all 19 died of dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation.
Williams had been paid $7,500 by someone in Cleveland, Ohio, to transport the human cargo, according to testimony at his detention hearing.
Fatima Holloway, a passenger in the cab who has been indicted on human-smuggling charges, told immigration agents that Williams began the journey by hauling a cargo of milk from Cleveland to San Antonio.
After unloading the milk, he picked up the immigrants, who had each paid about $1,800, in Harlingen and headed north on U.S. 77, according to testimony by an immigration agent.
To avoid suffocation, immigrants clawed four holes in the trailer doors, according to testimony.
Williams is alleged to have continued to drive while the immigrants screamed and waved their arms from the air holes.
At one point on the road to Victoria a driver in a passing truck signaled Williams that he had a problem, agent Jeffrey Hudson testified.
Williams pulled over and dialed his cell phone, screaming into it, “These people are tearing up my truck! How many people did you put back there?” Hudson said.
He bought water for the immigrants at the Victoria truck stop, opened the trailer, unhooked it and left with Holloway, Hudson said.
Williams was arrested May 14 at Twelve Oaks Medical Center in southwest Houston.