The driver of the sealed truck that carried 19 illegal immigrants to grisly deaths nearly two years ago in South Texas in the nation’s worst human smuggling disaster went on trial for his life here Tuesday with the government and the defense offering the jury sharply different pictures of his culpability.
In his opening statement, an assistant United States attorney portrayed the driver, Tyrone M. Williams, 34, a Jamaican from Schenectady, N.Y., as “the most heartless, evil and cruel” member of “a criminal enterprise that treated people worse than animals on their way to the slaughterhouse.”
An admitted smuggling conspirator testified Tuesday that with the passengers suffocating and frantically punching holes into the uncooled refrigeration trailer, Mr. Williams called him angrily to complain: “How many people were back there? They’re messing up my truck.” He was motivated by greed, a $7,500 payment and the promise of more work, charged the lead prosecutor, Daniel C. Rodriguez.
Mr. Williams’s lawyer, Craig Washington, conceded in his opening statement that his client was “guilty of transporting” the immigrants, but said that “every tragedy is not a crime” and that prosecutors “will not prove these poor helpless people died at his hands.” Mr. Washington said that leaders of the smuggling plot were to blame for the 74 people packed into the 18-wheeler and that Mr. Williams, upon realizing their plight, rushed water to them. He also questioned why Mr. Williams, who is black, is the only defendant of the 14 charged in the plot to face the death penalty.
Mr. Williams is charged with 58 counts of transporting and causing injury and death to illegal immigrants.
The trailer, containing the bodies of a 5-year-old and 16 other people, was found abandoned near Victoria, Tex., on May 14, 2003. Many others were injured, including two who died a short time later. Mr. Williams, who had fled in the cab of the truck with a companion, was arrested later that day in a Houston hospital, where he had gone, he said, to seek treatment for shock and depression.
The investigation led to a ring that prosecutors said was headed by a Honduran woman, Karla Chávez, who organized safe houses on the Texas side of the Mexican border where illegal immigrants stayed until they could be smuggled past Border Patrol checkpoints and deeper into Texas. Ms. Chávez pleaded guilty last June to a charge that could send her to prison for life, but tried unsuccessfully in January to withdraw her plea.
Two others accused in the plot were convicted in December.
Mr. Williams’s trial, which could last six to eight weeks, was repeatedly delayed over efforts by Mr. Washington to make the government explain why Mr. Williams alone faced capital punishment. The judge hearing the case, Vanessa D. Gilmore, ruled at one point that she expected to tell jurors in any punishment phase that the government had been resistant, but the decision was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The United States Supreme Court refused this week to review Mr. Williams’s case, clearing the way for the trial before a jury of seven women and five men, three of them black.