updated 3/15/2004 9:02:53 PM ET 2004-03-16T02:02:53

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against the driver of a truck used last year to smuggle illegal immigrants, 19 of whom died in what authorities have called the United States' deadliest smuggling attempt.

Tyrone Williams, 33, is accused of being behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer that transported more than 70 undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic on the evening of May 13 from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston.

Prosecutors say when the immigrants began succumbing to the trailer's sweltering heat, Williams abandoned it at a truck stop in Victoria early May 14. Seventeen immigrants were found dead inside the truck 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Houston. Two others died later.

The victims, including a 5-year-old Mexican boy, suffered from dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation.

"Where an act, intentionally undertaken in reckless disregard for human life, directly results in the single largest loss of life in any contemporary smuggling operation, justice and the law demand the accused face the ultimate punishment upon conviction," U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said Monday.

Only one defendant faces execution
Williams is the only one of the arrested defendants who will face the death penalty.

His attorney, Craig Washington, said he didn't know if Williams was unfairly being targeted for such a penalty in this case and would leave it up to a jury to answer that question.

"My duty is to do everything in my power and my ability to try to prevent yet another tragedy because it truly would be tragic if the government were successful in persuading people that Mr. Williams deserves a death sentence in this case," he said. "I truly believe that those who are on the jury will believe it would be wrong to give Mr. Williams the death sentence."

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore set Monday — after granting prosecutors three extensions — as the deadline for Williams to find out if he would face the death penalty if convicted.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft made the final decision after local prosecutors submitted their recommendation.

Reckless disregard alleged
The decision to seek the death penalty was filed late Monday following the return of a 60-count superseding indictment in the case. The indictment includes the grand jury's special findings in the case, which establish the basis for seeking such a penalty against Williams. The findings allege that Williams intentionally acted with reckless disregard for human life, creating a grave risk of death and the deaths of 19 people was the direct result of his participation in the act.

The new indictment also accuses Williams and the other defendants of two additional charges related to the deaths of two Mexican immigrants whose identities were not known at the time of the first indictment in June.

The case has been set for trial June 7, barring additional delays.

Fourteen people were indicted last year on charges of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants in the incident. Nine were arrested, and five remain fugitives.

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