updated 12/17/2004 9:14:42 PM ET 2004-12-18T02:14:42

The lawyer for a man accused of abandoning a truck crammed with illegal immigrants in a deadly smuggling attempt claims the driver is being singled out for the death penalty because he is black. A federal judge Friday told prosecutors to explain.

At a hearing, Judge Vanessa Gilmore asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Roberts to provide her a letter from Attorney General John Ashcroft explaining his office’s refusal to “disclose why you sought the death penalty on this guy, the only black guy, and not on the others.”

Truck driver Tyrone Williams, 33, of Schenectady, N.Y., is accused of abandoning a trailer crammed with illegal immigrants traveling across Texas in the stifling heat; 17 bodies were found inside the trailer and two others died later.

Contempt citation threatened
Gilmore said she would hold Roberts in contempt if she didn’t get the letter Friday.

Roberts said he doubted he would be able to get the letter in time, and reiterated a previous argument that “other co-defendants organized and led the conspiracy, but ultimately, none of the co-defendants had control over the (immigrants) once Williams drove away from the initial loading location.”

The motion also said releasing additional information on how the government decided to seek the death penalty is “privileged information and not discoverable.”

Nancy Herrera, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston, said prosecutors had filed a motion asking Gilmore to reconsider her request for a letter from Ashcroft. A decision in the matter was not expected by Friday.

Roberts also told Gilmore the government did not seek the death penalty against Fatima Holloway, who is also black. Holloway, who has pleaded guilty, rode in the tractor-trailer with Williams during the 2003 smuggling attempt.

The truck driver’s lawyer, Craig Washington, on Thursday asked the judge to either bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, or to outline why Williams, of the 14 people indicted, is the only one facing death in the case.

‘Discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent’
“In this case, the discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent cry for justice,” Washington wrote in the motion. “Moreover, every other similarly situated individual in the history of the death penalty as it relates to (immigrant) smuggling has been treated differently. Justice demands justice.”

Williams is accused of being paid by a smuggling ring to load more than 70 immigrants into his tractor-trailer and take them from south Texas to Houston in May 2003.

Williams’ trial is set to begin Jan. 5. Two other defendants in the case, Victor Jesus Rodriguez and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar, waited for a jury to resume deliberations in their trial Monday. They could face life in prison.

Claudia Carrizales de Villa, who was also on trial with Rodriguez and Garcia-Tobar, had her charges dismissed by Gilmore, who said prosecutors failed to prove the case against her; Herrera said prosecutors were considering their legal options.

Five people indicted in the case have pleaded guilty. Four were arrested in Mexico and face trial there. The trial of another defendant is on hold.

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