DALLAS — After the doors to trucker James Matthew Bradley Jr.’s sweltering tractor-trailer were finally thrown open in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in San Antonio, 10 people would be found to have died as a result of their harrowing ride inside.
Now, in the wake of Bradley’s arrest, the question for federal prosecutors looms: Should they seek the death penalty over the egregious case of human smuggling?
The crime is one of 40 offenses under federal law that potentially carry the death penalty. But even though Richard Durbin, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, has refused to say whether he’ll seek the punishment, former prosecutors who have stood in his shoes say it’s unlikely.
There are a range of factors that would go into that decision, they say, including whether Bradley intended for the victims to die, and whether he transported the undocumented immigrants as part of a larger smuggling operation. It’s also not Durbin’s call alone; any decision to seek the death penalty would have to be reviewed internally at the Department of Justice.
“My gut feeling is they [will] not seek death,” said Johnny Sutton, who served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2004 until 2009. “Generally we reserve the death penalty for intentional killings that are heinous. And this situation was heinous in that so many people died. But it will come down to whether the driver had intent and knowledge.”
Bradley has claimed he was unaware he was carrying undocumented immigrants until he heard banging and shaking in his trailer and was overrun by people desperate to get out of the trailer. But according to a criminal complaint, Bradley told investigators that six black SUVs were waiting to pick up the immigrants and scattered with them after his arrival.
Durbin has underscored the painful circumstances that the people inside Bradley’s trailer endured, but been mum on what sentence he will seek. “These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” the prosecutor said. “Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat.”
Horrific as it may be, it’s not the first case of its kind. In 2003, trucker Tyrone Mapletoft Williams was charged in Texas federal court with the deaths of 19 undocumented migrants who died in the back of his unrefrigerated tractor-trailer, which he abandoned in a parking lot in Victoria, Texas.
A jury convicted Williams in 2005, and though prosecutors sought the death penalty, jurors ultimately delivered a sentence of life in prison instead after concluding that Williams did not intend to kill the victims.
Don DeGabrielle, who served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas from 2006 to 2008 and pushed for the death penalty against Williams, noted that he was the only defendant tried in the immigrant smuggling case. Whether federal prosecutors try Bradley for capital murder may also depend on whether they can prove he was part of a larger smuggling ring and had knowledge of the crime, DeGabrielle said.
“Can they put other people in the courtroom that were part of the criminal enterprise?” DeGabrielle asked. “I’m saying, if I were [the] U.S. attorney analyzing the evidence, I would figure this was bigger than the person driving this truck. They were making money off these people.”
Richard Roper, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas who served from 2004 to 2008 and sent two men to death row for a deadly kidnapping case in the late 1990s, notes that any decision to seek the death penalty for Bradley would not be for Durbin to make on his own.
According to U.S. Department of Justice protocol, U.S. attorneys may recommend whether to try a defendant for the death sentence. But that decision must be vetted by a DOJ death-penalty review committee and the ultimate decision to try a defendant for capital punishment rests with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“The U.S. attorney will not be the only one to make that decision. And who knows what Sessions will do, if he’s even there,” Roper said, noting the recent tensions between the attorney general and President Donald Trump.
But Roper believes that whether the federal government tries Bradley for the death penalty will ultimately hinge on whether prosecutors can prove he intended to kill the immigrants he is accused of transporting illegally.
“It’s going to come down to whether or not he only disregarded their risk but wanted them to die,” Roper said. “I think you’d have to show that, and I don’t think you can.”