updated 12/16/2004 8:57:05 PM ET 2004-12-17T01:57:05

Jurors Thursday began deliberations in the first criminal trial stemming from the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants in a stifling tractor-trailer after the judge dismissed charges against one of the three defendants.

Federal prosecutors in closing arguments contended the remaining two defendants played essential roles in the human smuggling operation that led to the deaths. Defense lawyers argued that their clients were not directly responsible for putting the more than 70 immigrants in the trailer that was abandoned in South Texas.

Victor Jesus Rodriguez and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar face 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants, and could receive life in prison if convicted.

After the prosecution rested its case Thursday, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed similar charges against Claudia Carrizales de Villa. Gilmore found that prosecutors had not proven Carrizales had profited from her work at a restaurant that authorities said was a sham business intended to feed illegal immigrants after they crossed the border.

Carrizales, 36, from Mexico, cried and hugged her lawyers as the charges were dismissed.

Defense calls no witnesses
Gilmore rejected dismissal requests from Rodriguez’s and Garcia-Tobar’s attorneys, who called no witnesses in the trial.

The defendants were accused of helping transport and hide the immigrants in the tightly packed tractor-trailer in May 2003.

The trailer was heading to Houston from the Rio Grande Valley, but was abandoned at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Temperatures in the trailer reached an estimated 173 degrees.

Seventeen people were found dead inside the trailer, and two others died later.

Rodriguez, 38, is accused of picking up several immigrants who had arranged with his parents to be smuggled and taken to a house belonging to his father.

Rodriguez’s lawyer, Alberto Pullen, acknowledged his client took some of the illegal immigrants to the house but that was the extent of his involvement in the alleged conspiracy.

‘He had no way of knowing’
“He had no way of knowing they were going to be put in this trailer without air conditioning,” Pullen said. “He shouldn’t be paying for something that was out of his control, that he couldn’t foresee happening.”

Garcia-Tobar, 25, from Guatemala, is accused of helping load illegal immigrants into trailers and of helping recruit truckers to haul them.

Alberto Garcia, Garcia-Tobar’s lawyer, said Abelardo Flores, who struck a deal with federal prosecutors and was the chief witness against his client, was not credible.

The trial is the first stemming from the deaths, although five of the 14 people indicted have pleaded guilty. The alleged driver of the tractor-trailer could face the death penalty if convicted; his trial is set to begin Jan. 5.

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