U.S.A v. Williams

Citation610 F.3d 271
Decision Date24 June 2010
Docket NumberNo. 07-20689.,07-20689.
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,v.Tyrone Mapletoft WILLIAMS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)



Renata Ann Gowie, Asst. U.S. Atty (argued), James Lee Turner, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Seth Kretzer (argued), Law Offices of Seth Kretzer, Houston, TX, Marc S. Tabolsky, Yetter, Warden & Coleman, L.L.P., Austin, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before KING, WIENER, and DENNIS, Circuit Judges.

KING, Circuit Judge:

In May 2003, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, a commercial truck driver, transported 74 unlawful aliens from Harlingen, Texas, to Victoria, Texas. During the trip, he left the aliens locked in the trailer of his tractor-trailer without activating the trailer's air conditioning unit; as a result, 19 aliens died of dehydration, hyperthermia, suffocation, and mechanical asphyxia. Williams was convicted of 39 separate counts arising out of that trip. For the 20 counts that were capital charges, the Federal Death Penalty Act contemplated that the jury would determine the appropriate sentence if it first found a threshold intent that would justify imposing a sentence of death. The applicable threshold intent required that Williams have engaged in an “act of violence” in committing the capital offenses. Following the district court's instructions, the jury found that Williams had committed the requisite act of violence but that he should be sentenced to life imprisonment. We conclude that the district court erred in its definition of act of violence and that, under the correct definition, the evidence at trial cannot support a finding that the requisite threshold intent was met. While we affirm Williams's convictions and his sentences to terms of years, we vacate his life sentences and remand for resentencing by the district court.

A. Factual Background

The tragedy giving rise to this prosecution originated in a South Texas alien-smuggling operation headed by Karla Chavez-Joya (Chavez). In 2003, Abelardo Flores, Jr., and his assistant, Fredy Garcia-Tobar (Garcia), were working for Chavez in the smuggling operation. Flores and Garcia were tasked with recruiting and paying truck drivers to transport unlawful aliens through border checkpoints. They placed a premium on truck drivers who were non-Hispanic and whose trucks were licensed in states other than Texas. Such drivers, they believed, were less likely to be scrutinized at checkpoints.

Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, a commercial truck driver, satisfied both of those criteria: he is black, and his tractor-trailer was licensed in New York. Flores and Garcia approached Williams in late April or early May 2003 in McAllen, Texas; Williams agreed to transport aliens from Harlingen, Texas, through the checkpoint at Sarita, Texas, and to deliver the aliens to other members of the smuggling operation in Robstown, Texas, for $6,500. Williams drove to the loading site in Harlingen, where he remained in the cab of his truck as other members of the operation loaded 60 aliens into the trailer and closed the trailer doors. After Williams cleared the Sarita checkpoint, he called Flores to provide an update. Williams then continued driving to Robstown, where the aliens were unloaded.

About a week later, Williams contacted Flores from New York about performing another smuggling trip. They agreed in advance on payment of $7,500. Before driving to Harlingen, Williams, who was accompanied by a female companion, Fatima Holloway, had to deliver a shipment of milk to San Antonio, Texas. Williams's trailer was insulated and equipped with a refrigeration unit that maintained the milk shipment at 35 degrees Fahrenheit from New York; the trailer's refrigeration unit could operate even when the truck was turned off and even after being detached from the tractor portion of the truck. Williams delivered the milk and drove to Harlingen on May 13, 2003, where Flores paid Williams the $7,500 in advance. Flores offered to refuel Williams's truck before the trip, but Williams declined because he had enough fuel.

Sometime after 10:00 p.m., Williams and Holloway drove to the loading site, where Williams backed up the truck and turned off the headlights. Williams and Holloway remained in the cab as other members of the operation loaded 74 aliens into the trailer and closed the doors, which could not be opened from inside the trailer. Although Flores had advised Williams to set the trailer's temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit for the approximately 90-minute trip, at no point did Williams turn on the refrigeration unit. At the Sarita checkpoint, Williams told an agent that the truck was empty and that he was driving to Houston to pick up a load of produce; the agent sent Williams through the checkpoint without inspecting the trailer because the trailer's refrigeration unit was turned off. Two of the operation's members who had been following Williams did not experience such luck at the Sarita checkpoint. They were supposed to collect the aliens at the drop-off site in Robstown, but they were each detained at the checkpoint for 30-60 minutes. When he learned of this, Flores directed Williams to continue past Robstown and proceed with the aliens to Houston-over 200 miles past Robstown.

The aliens had remained silent through the Sarita checkpoint, but some time later, Holloway heard banging on the walls of the trailer. Although Williams pretended not to hear the banging at first, he admitted to Holloway that he heard it when it became louder. According to an eyewitness who was driving near Williams's truck, human arms were sticking out through holes in the trailer where lights had been, waving in distress. After Williams had passed the Sarita checkpoint, he pulled over in Riviera, Texas, in response to being signaled by another truck driver. After seeing the damage the aliens were causing to his trailer, Williams began cursing angrily and contacted Flores to demand more money. Williams also ignored Holloway's pleas to let the aliens out of the trailer. He resumed driving and stopped in Refugio, Texas, shortly after midnight, where he purchased several bottles of water. Williams again resumed driving and stopped at a truck stop near Victoria, Texas, shortly after 1:30 a.m. He made several trips inside to purchase water, which he placed into holes that had been made in the trailer; he then instructed Holloway to purchase water as well. On the last of these trips, Holloway saw a shirtless Hispanic male enter the truck stop and begin speaking to the clerk in Spanish. The clerk called the police, and Holloway walked back outside. As Williams escorted her back into the cab of the truck, she observed that the trailer's doors were open, but she did not see into the trailer. Williams had disengaged the tractor from the trailer, and he drove away, abandoning the trailer and the aliens at the truck stop.

Law enforcement and paramedics arrived at the truck stop shortly thereafter. The scene they encountered was horrific and gruesome. There were several dead bodies on the ground by the trailer doors. Bodies, both dead and living, were stacked in a pile in the trailer. Some of the aliens were standing behind the pile. The aliens were stripped down to their underwear and were sweating. They had clawed at the foam on the inside of the trailer, and the trailer smelled of vomit, urine, feces, and blood. Seventeen of the trailer's 74 passengers died at the scene and another two died at the hospital from a combination of dehydration, hyperthermia, suffocation, and mechanical asphyxia. The victims included two children, ages five and fifteen.

B. Procedural Background

On March 15, 2004, a multi-count superseding indictment charged Williams 1 with 58 counts alleging violations of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1).2 Count 1 (conspiracy) charged him with conspiracy to harbor and transport unlawful aliens for private financial gain, causing serious injury to a person, placing in jeopardy the life of a person, and resulting in the death of a person.3 Counts 2 through 20 (harboring) each charged him with aiding and abetting the harboring of unlawful aliens for private financial gain, causing serious injury to a person and placing in jeopardy the life of a person.4 Counts 21 through 39 (noncapital transporting) each charged him with aiding and abetting the transporting of unlawful aliens for private financial gain, causing serious bodily injury and placing in jeopardy the life of a person.5 Counts 40 through 58 (capital transporting) each charged him with aiding and abetting the transporting of unlawful aliens for private financial gain, causing serious injury to a person, placing in jeopardy the life of a person, and resulting in the death of a person.6 The Government simultaneously filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Williams under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 (FDPA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591- 3598.

Trial proceeded against Williams on all counts and ended in a mistrial. 7 Following appeal and remand, the case was retried. On December 4, 2006, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the conspiracy, noncapital transporting, and capital transporting counts.8 The capital counts then proceeded to a separate sentencing hearing before the jury, as mandated by the FDPA. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591(a) & 3593(b)(1). At the sentencing hearing, the Government bore the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt at least one of four possible threshold intents. See 18 U.S.C. § 3591(a)(2). The only threshold intent submitted to the jury was whether Williams “intentionally and specifically engaged in an act of violence, knowing that the act created a grave risk of death to a person ... such that participation in the act constituted a reckless disregard for human life and the victim died as a direct...

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