Jurors begin deliberations in human smuggling case

Friday, December 17th 2004, 6:52 am

By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ In the months after 19 illegal immigrants died in a sweltering trailer during a border crossing, authorities have brought three people to trial for their involvement in the smuggling ring they say caused the tragedy.

By the time the jury began deliberating the case Thursday, there were only two.

After the prosecution rested its case, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed charges against Claudia Carrizales de Villa, saying prosecutors had not proven she had profited from a restaurant that authorities said was a sham business intended to feed border crossers.

Carrizales, 36, from Mexico, cried and hugged her lawyers as the charges were dismissed.

Gilmore rejected dismissal requests from the attorneys of Victor Jesus Rodriguez and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar, who face 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants and could receive life in prison if convicted.

Jurors received the case Thursday and deliberated for about an hour. They were set to resume on Monday.

In closing arguments, federal prosecutors contended the two defendants played essential roles in the human smuggling operation that led to the deaths.

Defense lawyers argued that their clients were not directly responsible for tightly packing the more than 70 immigrants in the trailer headed for Houston that was abandoned at a truck stop near Victoria in May 2003. Temperatures in the trailer reached an estimated 173 degrees.

Rodriguez, 38, is accused of picking up several immigrants who had arranged with his parents to be smuggled and taken to a house belonging to his father.

Rodriguez's lawyer, Alberto Pullen, acknowledged his client took some of the illegal immigrants to the house but that was the extent of his involvement in the alleged conspiracy.

``He had no way of knowing they were going to be put in this trailer without air conditioning,'' Pullen said. ``He shouldn't be paying for something that was out of his control, that he couldn't foresee happening.''

Garcia-Tobar, 25, from Guatemala, is accused of helping load illegal immigrants into trailers and of helping recruit truckers to haul them.

Alberto Garcia, Garcia-Tobar's lawyer, said Abelardo Flores, who struck a deal with federal prosecutors and was the chief witness against his client, was not credible.

The trial is the first stemming from the deaths, although five of the 14 people indicted have pleaded guilty. The alleged driver of the tractor-trailer could face the death penalty if convicted; his trial is set to begin Jan. 5.

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