HOUSTON – A truck driver was resentenced to nearly 34 years in prison on Monday after a federal appeals court last year overturned the multiple life sentences he received for his role in America's deadliest human smuggling attempt, which resulted in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants.
The new sentence of 405 months that Tyrone Williams was given during a court hearing is equal to the longest prison term he previously got in the case, for another count that was upheld on appeal.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez made an impassioned plea that despite the appeals court's ruling, the truck driver deserved to remain in prison for life for the deadly May 2003 smuggling attempt in which Williams transported a group of immigrants inside a sweltering tractor-trailer.
Rodriguez said that during the smuggling attempt from South Texas to Houston, Williams heard the immigrants begging and screaming for their lives as they were succumbing to the stifling heat inside his vehicle but he refused to free them.
"He alone decided not to open those doors," Rodriguez said. "When it comes to the deaths of those 19 people, there really is only one person responsible for that."
But before he was resentenced, a tearful Williams told U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal that he did not merit a life sentence because he wasn't capable of all the "crazy stuff" prosecutors had accused him of doing and that the deaths were an accident.
"If I had known those people were in trouble like that, I would have opened those doors. I don't kill people, your honor," Williams, 39, said after taking a break to compose himself. "I live with regret every day of my life."
Craig Washington, Williams' attorney, said the truck driver was being more harshly punished than others who were convicted in the case and that equal blame should fall on those who overloaded the tractor-trailer with immigrants.
Rosenthal said that while Williams did not want the immigrants to die, his refusals to free them after knowing they were in danger were "callous and ultimately devastating omissions" that led to their deaths and merited not a life sentence but one that went above the sentencing guidelines, which called for a maximum term of just more than 11 years.
Prosecutors declined to comment after the sentencing.
Washington said he was pleased Williams avoided a life sentence but that he expected his client would file an appeal asking for a new trial because of issues related to the case being wrongly tried as death-penalty eligible.
Williams was convicted on 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. He had faced possible death sentences on 19 counts of transporting illegal immigrants. But a jury in 2007 decided to sentence him to life in prison without parole.
However, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Williams was not eligible for capital punishment. The court also said that Rosenthal should have sentenced Williams on those counts.
While the life sentences were dismissed, the appeal court upheld the other sentences Williams was given by Rosenthal: 20 years for 19 other transporting counts and nearly 34 years for the conspiracy count. Prosecutors had dismissed 19 harboring counts.
All the sentences Williams has now been given are running concurrently.
The smuggling attempt began in the South Texas city of Harlingen, where more than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic were packed inside Williams' tractor-trailer. Williams was only supposed to take the immigrants about 120 miles north to Robstown. But during the trip, he was told to instead take them to Houston, which was more than 200 miles past Robstown.
During the more than three-hour trip, Williams never turned on the air conditioning in the airtight truck. As temperatures in the trailer skyrocketed to as high as 173 degrees Fahrenheit, the immigrants kicked walls, clawed at insulation, broke out tail lights and screamed for help..
Williams abandoned the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Williams, an immigrant from Jamaica who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., was later arrested in Houston.
Seventeen people, including a 5-year-old boy, were found dead in the trailer. Two others died later. All the deaths were attributed to dehydration, overheating and suffocation.
Besides Williams, 13 others were indicted in the case. Two had charges against them dismissed, one who cooperated with prosecutors was sentenced to the three days in jail she served after her arrest and the others were given sentences ranging from 14 months to 23 years in prison. Williams was the only one who faced a possible death sentence.
Williams' attorneys had asked to remove Rosenthal from the case, accusing her of being biased. The judge denied their request.