IMAGE: Tyrone Williams
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
Tyrone Williams tries to hide his face as he leaves a federal courthouse in Houston on Jan. 2 after a day of testimony in his sentencing hearing.
updated 1/18/2007 6:09:47 PM ET 2007-01-18T23:09:47

A truck driver was sentenced to life in prison Thursday, avoiding a death sentence for his role in the United States' deadliest human smuggling attempt in which 19 illegal immigrants died from dehydration and suffocation inside an overheated tractor-trailer.

Tyrone Williams, 36, was convicted last month on 58 counts of conspiracy, harboring and transporting immigrants.

A jury deliberated for 5 1/2 days before sentencing Williams, himself an immigrant from Jamaica.

Williams was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for each of the 19 counts of transporting the illegal immigrants who died. U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal will sentence Williams on Aug. 23 for the remaining 38 counts of harboring and transporting immigrants and for the conspiracy count. The maximum sentence for the conspiracy count is life in prison.

Williams looked down as the verdict was read and gave no visible reaction. His attorney, former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington, wept and wiped his eyes with a tissue.

Prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez looked grim after the sentence was announced as his boss, U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle, spoke to reporters.

"We did everything we could to impose a sentence of death. Nineteen life sentences is not something to be disappointed about," DeGabrielle said. "One human being had the chance to let those people out. That was Tyrone Williams."

In May 2003, Williams’ tractor-trailer was packed with more than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic. As temperatures skyrocketed inside the airtight refrigerator truck, the immigrants kicked walls, clawed at insulation, broke out taillights and screamed for help.

Williams' family, including his mother and father, begged the jury to spare his life during emotional testimony presented at the retrial's punishment phase.

Relatives of victims demand justice
Relatives of the 19 victims also testified, demanding justice and telling jurors their loved ones did not deserve to die the way they did.

This was the second time Williams was tried for the smuggling deaths.

In 2005, a jury convicted Williams on the 38 transporting counts, but he avoided a death sentence because the jury couldn't agree on his role in the smuggling attempt. The jury deadlocked on the other counts.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the verdict, saying the jury failed to specify his role in the crime.

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