JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press Writer, reports:

HOUSTON Mar 24, 2005 — The truck driver charged in the nation’s deadliest smuggling attempt has been convicted on 38 counts of transporting illegal immigrants.

Tyrone Williams, 34, could be sentenced to life in prison but avoided the death penalty because jurors could not agree on whether he bore direct responsibility for the deaths of 19 people packed into his tractor-trailer in 2003.

“We don’t give the death penalty in this country for an accident,” defense attorney Craig Washington said Wednesday. “Tragedies happen every day. But every tragedy is not a crime.”

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore declared a mistrial on 20 counts of conspiracy and harboring after the jury deadlocked on the charges during 2 1/2 days of deliberations.

More than 70 illegal immigrants were crammed into Williams’ trailer at the Mexican border for a journey that was supposed to have taken them to Houston.

Instead, as the temperature inside the stifling, tomblike truck soared to 173 degrees, they screamed and clawed at the walls until Williams abandoned them in Victoria, 100 miles southwest of their destination.

Seventeen people, including a 5-year-old boy, died inside the trailer of dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Authorities described seeing piles of half-naked bodies piled 4 feet high on the vomit-covered vehicle floor and bloody claw marks on its doors. Two other immigrants died later.

For now, Williams faces up to life in prison on each of the 19 counts of transporting illegal immigrants in a manner that caused their deaths. He faces a maximum of 20 years for each for 19 other transporting counts. No sentencing date has been set.

Williams could face capital punishment again if prosecutors decide to retry him on a conspiracy count, one of the deadlocked counts that is death-penalty eligible. Prosecutors were expected to tell Gilmore at an April 11 hearing whether they plan to retry Williams on the 20 deadlocked counts.

Williams, a 34-year-old Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., is the only one of 14 defendants in the case to face a possible death sentence. Federal law allows capital punishment in smuggling cases that result in death.

Defense attorneys argued that Williams, who does not speak Spanish, could not understand the immigrants’ pleas. But when he found out what was happening, he bought 55 bottles of water for them at a truck stop and shoved them through the hole in the trailer.

In December, two other defendants in the case were convicted of various smuggling charges. They await sentencing, while a woman who was also on trial had charges against her dismissed.

Another woman’s trial is on hold. Five others have pleaded guilty. One man remains a fugitive. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against three others who were recently returned to the country last month after fleeing to Mexico.

Williams’ attorneys had argued he faced the death penalty because he is black. Prosecutors have said he deserved such punishment because he alone could have freed the immigrants.

Defense attorneys argued that while Williams was guilty of transporting the immigrants for a fee of $7,500, the ring’s other members were responsible for the deaths because they packed too many people into the trailer.

“I think the jury is now saying, ‘Why him?’,” Washington said after the verdict was announced.

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