WASHINGTON, D.C. – The driver of a cargo truck in which 19 undocumented immigrants died from heat stroke and dehydration three years ago on a South Texas highway was found guilty by a federal jury in Texas on Monday.
The accused, Jamaican-born Tyrone Williams, could receive the death penalty. The incident resulted in the highest number of simultaneous illegal immigrants’ deaths in U.S. history.
The jury found the New York resident guilty of a total of 58 charges, 20 of which carry a possible death sentence, for his involvement in the deaths of the 19 migrants – all of them Mexicans or Central Americans – who were traveling with another 55 illegal immigrants in the unventilated trailer of a cargo truck May 14, 2003.
The trial, presided over in Houston by U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, lasted nearly two months with the jury beginning its deliberations Nov. 27.
As came out in the trial, the 74 migrants – suffering acutely from the high temperature in the oven-like trailer – tried to break out of their locked confinement, shouting to Williams that they needed fresh air.
The defense argued that Williams did not pay attention to the pounding and cries for help from inside the overheated, airless trailer packed with migrants because he did not understand Spanish.
The driver apparently picked up the undocumented migrants in the Mexican portion of the Rio GrandeValley, near the border with the United States, and brought them across the frontier in the truck.
Each of the would-be immigrants had paid between $1,500-1,900 to be smuggled into the United States.
Williams abandoned the trailer at a Victoria truck stop 160 kilometers southwest of Houston, after he stopped to get a drink of water and heard the people screaming in back.
He opened the doors and discovering bodies piled inside, after which he locked the doors again and fled.
The trailer was discovered and opened by police, and paramedics were called to attend to those inside.
Authorities say 17 of the victims, including a five-year-old boy, died from asphyxia, heat stroke and dehydration inside the truck, and two more died several hours after being rescued.
Williams was arrested a few hours later. The prosecution argued that the driver is responsible for the migrants’ deaths because he did not allow them to get out of the trailer and did not turn on the air conditioning there for them, either of which could have saved many – and quite possibly all of the migrants.
Williams’ attorney said that his client was not responsible for the deaths because he did not know what the situation in the trailer was until he opened the doors and discovered the gruesome scene inside.
The 35-year-old driver is the only one of the 14 people charged in the case who could receive the death penalty.
He was found guilty of people trafficking in another trial in March 2005, but a federal appeals court rejected the jury’s decision and ordered a new trial.
In the earlier trial, the jury could not agree on whether Williams could be considered directly responsible for the immigrants’ deaths.