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Driver in 2003 smuggling deaths resentenced

By Gabe Semenza
Jan. 24, 2011 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 26, 2011 at 7:27 p.m.


HOUSTON - A federal judge on Monday resentenced Tyrone Williams to 34 years in prison for his role in the 2003 deaths of 19 illegal immigrants.

Because Williams, 40, likely will appeal the sentencing, the case is far from closed. Monday's hearing only added another twist to a landmark trial.

In May 2003, Williams abandoned his sealed tractor-trailer in Victoria. Inside: dead or dying illegal immigrants, the byproduct of a botched smuggling attempt.

The 40-year-old became the first person federal prosecutors targeted for the death penalty under a 1994 immigration law.

That law states if anyone transports, smuggles or harbors illegal immigrants in this country, and the act results in death, the convicted can face execution.

Of the 64 human smuggling tragedies that ended in death between 1994 and 2002, however, no smuggler ever faced the death penalty until Williams.

A jury first convicted Williams on 38 of 58 counts, but were deadlocked on the last 20. He would have faced 10 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors appealed, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case for a second trial.

During the second trial in 2007, a jury convicted Williams of all 58 counts. Instead of sending him to his execution, the jury handed down multiple life sentences.

Then, late last year, a federal appeals court overturned the sentences, saying Williams was ineligible for capital punishment and the judge - not the jury - should have determined Williams' fate.

Monday's resentencing was a byproduct of that ruling.

Craig Washington, a 68-year-old former Texas state senator and Houston congressman, represents Williams.

Washington, who was in Victoria the morning law enforcement found the bodies, later stepped away from the case because of health reasons and rejoined it in November. He is widely credited for steering the second jury away from the death penalty.

"The government has spent $7.2 million prosecuting and attempting to get the death penalty for one man," Washington said after the hearing on on Monday. "It turns out that money was all wasted. Today's sentencing was the best that we could have hoped for."

Because a jury convicted Williams of conspiracy and transporting illegal immigrants - a group including people who died and survived - the tractor-trailer driver faces three sentences.

Williams faces 405 months in prison for conspiracy and 240 months for transporting immigrants who lived, Washington said. After Monday's sentencing, Williams faces another 405 months for the transportation of those who died.

"We respect the decision of the court," said United States Attorney José Angel Moreno via an e-mail.

Washington, however, said his work is not done. His client has one year to appeal Monday's sentencing, and he likely will, the lawyer said.

Washington contends that because a court deemed Williams ineligible for capital punishment - life in prison or death - he should receive sentences comparable to the other 13 convicted smugglers.

Those smugglers were handed sentences ranging from 14 months to 23 years in prison.

"Since he should have never been tried for the death penalty, he should have been tried alongside the other defendants," Washington said. "If he's not eligible for the death penalty, punishment should be more in line with what the others got. We've complained about this all along."

Not everyone is unhappy Williams faces a lengthy prison term. Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor saw the tragedy's aftermath and owns land adjacent to where Williams ditched the trailer.

"As far as I'm concerned, he won't see the light of day as a free man, and I would call that justice," O'Connor said.

Headline corrected Jan. 27, 2011

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