updated 1/31/2006 8:22:53 PM ET 2006-02-01T01:22:53

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed most of the counts against three people accused in connection with America’s deadliest human smuggling attempt, which killed 19 people in an overheated truck abandoned on a Texas highway.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore said there was no evidence the three defendants were responsible for what happened to most of the immigrants who were named in the indictment because they had no contact with them.

After the prosecution rested, defense attorneys asked Gilmore to dismiss all charges, arguing the federal government had not proven its case against Victor Sanchez Rodriguez, 58; his wife, Emma Sapata Rodriguez, 59; and Rosa Sarrata Gonzalez, 51, Sapata’s half-sister.

The three had each faced 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants in the May 2003 smuggling attempt that left 19 people dead. Sanchez and Sapata also face two additional charges, alleging they held for ransom the 3-year-old son of a Honduran woman who survived the smuggling attempt.

After a short break, Gilmore dismissed 55 of the counts Sarrata faced, leaving her with only one count of conspiracy, one for harboring immigrants and one for transporting immigrants.

Gilmore also dismissed 40 of the harboring and transporting counts Sapata and Sanchez faced.

Even with the dismissed counts, all three defendants still face up to life in prison if convicted.

In her ruling, Gilmore said what happened to many of these immigrants was the result of actions taken by Karla Patricia Chavez, the alleged leader of the smuggling ring, and Octavio Torres Ortega, an accused leader of a smuggling cell.

“It was not foreseeable (to the defendants) the actions taken by Karla or (Torres) could result in the deaths of the immigrants,” Gilmore said.

Testimony by defense witnesses was set to resume Wednesday.

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