A driver who hauled a tractor-trailer full of undocumented immigrants through Texas proved that he was the "most cruel and evil member" of a smuggling ring when he ignored cries from his suffocating passengers -- 19 of whom died -- a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements at the man's trial.
Tyrone Williams, 34, faces 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. He is the only one of the 14 defendants in the nation's deadliest case of human smuggling who could receive the death penalty.
"The goals of the operation were not to get caught and to make money as fast as possible," Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel C. Rodriguez told the jury. Williams "treated people worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse."
Defense attorney Craig Washington countered that Williams was a supporting player in the smuggling ring. "Why are we trying to decide whether he lives or dies but not others who were in a better position to know how many people were in the truck?" he said.
For months, Washington has asked prosecutors to explain why a black defendant was singled out for capital punishment when all but two of those indicted in the case are Latino.
Karla Patricia Chavez Joya, the alleged ringleader of the smuggling operation, pleaded guilty in June and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Since then, her lawyers have tried three times to withdraw her plea, claiming they have evidence that a border patrol agent was involved in the smuggling attempt.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider the claim that Williams had been improperly singled out.
In his opening arguments, Washington said that Williams -- who typically spent his days hauling milk south and watermelons north -- didn't realize anything was amiss in the trailer. "He does not speak one word of Spanish.... There was no communication between the people in the truck.... He didn't know what the matter was."
The truck driver also didn't realize how many people were crammed in the trailer because he had stayed in his cab as they boarded. He was cowed, Washington said, by a pistol brandished by one of the smugglers. Williams is "guilty of transporting illegal persons into this country. But they will not prove that helpless, defenseless people died at his hand," Washington said of the prosecution.
Williams, a Jamaican immigrant who was living in Schenectady, N.Y., has said he was recruited by a South Texas smuggling operation to transport Mexican and Central American migrants from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston.
Rodriguez said that on May 13, 2003, a member of the smuggling ring handed Williams an envelope containing $7,500. In return, Williams drove his truck that night to a deserted area outside of Harlingen and backed it up into the brush, where people ran into the trailer.
Williams was told to get past the border patrol in Sarita, Texas, and drive to Robstown, where two men -- also part of the smuggling ring -- were to load the immigrants into other vehicles for the 215-mile trip to Houston, Rodriguez said. But the two men, accused smuggler Abelardo Flores testified Tuesday, were detained by the border patrol. Williams was then offered "double the money" to drive his truck to Houston, Washington said.
Not far from Sarita, other drivers began pointing and honking their horns at Williams, Rodriguez said. Williams stopped the truck and saw that the passengers in the stifling trailer had punched out the rear lights to create air holes. Upset that his trailer was damaged, he called Flores on his cellphone.
"He was using foul language and saying people were messing up his truck.... It sounded like he was angry," Flores testified. Flores has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy resulting in injury or death. In return for his testimony, prosecutors dropped 57 counts against him.
One of the defendants, Fatima Holloway, who was riding in the cab with Williams, will testify that they heard passengers crying: "El nino, el nino," Rodriguez said. Williams asked Holloway what the words meant. She said she thought it had something to do with the weather. They would later learn that a 5-year-old boy was dying in the trailer.
Williams drove on as the trailer's oxygen supply dwindled and the immigrants pushed shoes and T-shirts out of the air holes to signal their distress. "At no time did Tyrone Williams turn on the refrigeration [in his trailer] or open the doors to see what's going on," Rodriguez said.
Outside of Victoria, Texas -- southwest of Houston -- Williams stopped the rig near a convenience store and opened the trailer doors. Those who could stumbled out, leaving behind the dead and dying.
Williams bought water for some of the immigrants, but then abandoned the trailer and fled to Houston. Williams later walked into an emergency room and told doctors that he was in shock after learning that a trailer he thought was empty was instead jammed with people.