In a highly sensationalized trial here in Houston, Jamaican-born Tyrone Williams, the truck driver on trial for the horrid deaths of 19 Latino immigrants, is the only defendant out of 14 indicted who faces capital punishment. Williams is one of two African Americans indicted in the murder case in which 19 people, including one child, suffocated in his truck trailer on their way to Houston. The other 12 defendants are Latinos.

Williams was recruited by a human smuggling operation to transport 75 people from Harlingen (near the border with Mexico) to Houston. The people were packed into Williams’ trailer, which had no ventilation or cooling. According to survivors, the immigrants screamed for help and tore through insulation in order to punch out the taillights to get air. A 5-year-old-boy was the first to die. Williams abandoned the trailer and people near Victoria, Texas, and drove to Houston where he sought admission to Twelve Oaks Hospital for depression. He was arrested there later. A videotape reportedly shows Williams, with his companion, buying more than 50 bottles of water, although the people died of suffocation, not dehydration.

Government prosecutors have dehumanized Williams, calling him “the most evil, cruel, and heartless member of that enterprise,” referring to the smuggling operation. Many others are asking, though, “Why did the government single out an African American for the death penalty when 12 others were eligible for that penalty?” U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore asked then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to explain in writing why the government sought the death penalty “on the only Black guy.” Prosecutors are refusing to explain their rationale.

Federal Death Penalty Resource Council statistics indicate that of the 68 previous defendants prosecuted for smuggling humans that resulted in deaths, none had been charged with capital murder. Studies have shown that the vast majority of federal offenders charged with capital murder have been African American, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

This tragic, horrible case points to the need to radically change immigration policy in this country, and to abolish the death penalty. Economic and social conditions are severe in Mexico. Workers are propelled to this country to make enough money to support their families. Tens of thousands of small farmers and peasants have been thrown off the land because of “free trade” deals. Smugglers and employers collaborate in an organized fashion to maximize the exploitation of immigrant workers.

Changes in our immigration policies and improvement in economic conditions in Mexico will prevent future tragedies such as this from recurring. The labor movement and social justice groups advocate organizing immigrant workers and providing a path to citizenship or legal status, since an estimated 10 million undocumented workers live and work in the U.S. It’s obvious that employers, especially in construction, agriculture and meatpacking, are hiring and profiting from immigrant workers. Every effort should be made to help them attain citizenship. Laws need to be changed to reflect that reality. If the process of integrating immigrant workers into the work force were more rational and humane, there would be no need for human smuggling.

A quick calculation indicates that if 75 workers paid roughly $2,000 each to be transported from Harlingen to Houston, that put roughly $150,000 into the hands of the smugglers. The ringleaders paid Williams $7,500, which leaves a great deal of profit for the people primarily responsible for the crime.

Williams and the others should be held responsible for whatever crime they are found guilty of, but the fact that Williams is facing the death penalty points to systemic problems embedded in the death penalty itself. The only way to change that is to abolish the death penalty.

Paul Hill (phill2 @ houston.rr.com) is a contributing writer from Texas.

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