updated 3/8/2005 6:20:14 PM ET 2005-03-08T23:20:14

A truck driver accused in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants crammed into his sweltering tractor-trailer went on trial Tuesday, with a prosecutor calling him the most “heartless, evil” member of the smuggling ring because he didn’t help people as they slowly died.

Tyrone Williams, 34, could get the death penalty if convicted for his part in the nation’s deadliest immigrant-smuggling attempt.

Defense attorney Craig Washington told the jury that while his client is guilty of transporting illegal immigrants, he is not responsible for the 19 deaths.

Washington said Williams, a Jamaican immigrant, would have helped the immigrants who screamed for help and tried to claw their way out of the trailer, but he did not speak Spanish and did not understand their cries.

Only defendant to face death penalty
Williams is charged with 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. He is the only one of 14 defendants in the case to face the death penalty, which is allowed under federal law in smuggling attempts that end in death.

His truck was found abandoned at a truck stop about 125 miles southwest of Houston in May 2003, with 17 of the more than 70 people inside dead, including a 5-year-old boy. Two others died later.

Federal prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez told jurors Williams cared only about his $7,500 fee.

Rather than help the immigrants as they kicked out a signal light and cried for help, Williams demanded more money from the smuggling ring because he feared the immigrants would damage his truck, the prosecutor said.

“This was criminal enterprise that treated people worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse,” Rodriguez said. “He was the most heartless, evil and cruel member of the organization.”

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