The first time Abelardo Flores Jr. saw Tyrone Williams at a Texas
warehouse, he said he knew he was the one. Mr. Flores had gotten so
good at finding truckers to drive illegal immigrants north, he would
often make bets with friends when he spotted a potential new
It took some convincing that day, said Flores in court testimony
this week - especially since Mr. Williams said he preferred to run
drugs instead of people - but the trucker from New York finally
agreed to haul the immigrants for $6,500. Two weeks later, Williams
was back for another load, this time asking for $7,500.
Flores said he agreed to pay the extra money, hoping that
Williams would become a regular driver in his human-smuggling ring.
They parted that night after close to 75 people were stuffed inside
the truck's trailer. A few hours later, while partying at a topless
bar, Flores received frantic phone calls. He would soon learn that
things had gone terribly wrong.
After four delays and two appeals, the trial of Tyrone Williams -
the highest-profile participant in the immigrant- smuggling
operation that left 19 people dead near Victoria, Texas - finally
began in Houston this week in a case raising new questions about the
application of the federal death penalty. It is a trial being
closely watched on both sides of the border amid rising concern
about human smuggling. Mr. Williams is the first person to face the
federal death penalty under a 10-year-old human-trafficking law.
The government calls the operation a despicable criminal
enterprise, one that "treated people worse than cattle on their way
to the slaughterhouse," according to assistant US Attorney Daniel
Rodriguez in opening statements. "And Tyrone Williams was the most
evil, cruel, and heartless member of that enterprise."
The defense claims that Williams, pursing his lips through much
of the testimony, did not know how many immigrants were in his
trailer and that he had no reason to suspect they were running out
of air. "He is guilty of transporting undocumented persons into this
country," said his lawyer, Craig Washington. "But [the government]
will not be able to prove that these poor, helpless, defenseless
people died at his hand."
Despite the sad and shocking details of the incident, the
repeated delays and appeals in this case have revolved around a
single question: Why was the only person charged with capital murder
an African-American? Of the 14 people indicted (12 Hispanics and two
African-Americans), 12 were eligible for the death penalty.
Prosecutors say Williams was singled out because he was the only one
who had control of the tractor-trailer. In other words, he was the
only one who could have saved the immigrants' lives by opening the
doors or turning on the refrigeration unit.
But after US District Judge Vanessa Gilmore asked for a letter
from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft explaining why the
government sought the death penalty "on the only black guy," the
prosecution refused to explain its rationale.
Defense lawyers say that's common. The government never releases
documents containing the charges, even though the issue of racial
discrimination is routinely raised. "It is one of the most closely
guarded secrets you can imagine," says Rick Kammen, an Indianapolis
lawyer who has handled 17 federal death-penalty cases. "The
government's position has been, 'Six men and a wild monkey will not
tear this material from us.' "
Ever since the federal death penalty was restored in 1988,
charges of racial discrimination have plagued the Justice