Defense in human smuggling case says others to blame; prosecutor invokes memories of victims |

Defense in human smuggling case says others to blame; prosecutor invokes memories of victims

HOUSTON – An attorney for one of three people accused in the nation’s deadliest human smuggling attempt argued Friday that his client hadn’t physically done anything to cause the 19 deaths, and another lawyer blamed federal immigration policies.The prosecution asked the jury to focus instead on the victims.”These were people with hopes and dreams whose lives were ended,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Rodriguez said, showing the jury graphic photos of the dead.After closing arguments, the jury deliberated about two hours before adjourning. Deliberations were set to resume Monday.Victor Sanchez Rodriguez, 58; his wife, Emma Sapata Rodriguez, 59; and Rosa Sarrata Gonzalez, 51, Sapata’s half-sister, are accused of being part of a smuggling ring that trucked more than 70 immigrants from South Texas to Houston in May 2003.During the trip, the immigrants began to succumb to the airtight trailer’s deadly heat. The driver abandoned the trailer in Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Seventeen immigrants died inside and two died later, all from dehydration, overheating and suffocation.”It’s time to send a message to these three (smugglers) that their days of making money on the pain, desperation of others has come to an end,” Rodriguez said.The three defendants, all from Texas, had each been charged with 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. But on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed most of the counts, saying it was the actions of other smuggling ring members that put many of the immigrants in danger.Sarrata now faces three counts, while Sanchez and Sapata each face 20 counts, including two charges alleging they held for ransom the 3-year-old son of a Honduran woman who survived the smuggling attempt.If convicted, they could face life in prison.Sanchez’s attorney, David Adler, told jurors prosecutors probably had enough evidence to convict his client of the two charges related to the 3-year-old boy. But he said they had failed to prove Sanchez had anything to do with sending the tractor-trailer to Victoria when the original destination was near Corpus Christi.Adler blamed that decision on the driver, Tyrone Williams, and on Abelardo Flores, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.”There is no evidence Victor Rodriguez physically caused the death of people,” Adler said.Sapata’s defense attorney, Gerald Bourque, cited U.S. immigration laws, saying they profess to keep out illegal immigrants but welcome their low-cost labor. Bourque said that Sapata was performing a humanitarian service by feeding, clothing and sheltering the immigrants.”I’m asking you to stand up to … the government and say we will no longer allow you to hide your dirty little immigration secret,” he said.During the two-week trial, Karla Patricia Chavez, the alleged ringleader, testified for the defense, blaming Flores for sending the trailer to Houston.She testified she tried to track down the trailer but was too late. Rodriguez told jurors Friday that Chavez has lied about her role in the smuggling ring since signing a plea agreement, which she unsuccessfully tried to withdraw last year.The three defendants, all U.S. citizens, fled to Mexico after the smuggling attempt but were eventually returned.In all, 14 people were indicted in the case. Two, including the son of Sanchez and Sapata, were convicted of various smuggling charges. Two had charges dismissed, five others previously pleaded guilty and one man remains a fugitive.Williams, the driver, was convicted in March 2005 of 38 counts of transporting illegal immigrants, all non-death penalty counts.Vail, Colorado

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