HOUSTON, May 2 (Reuters) A Honduran woman who ran a human smuggling operation in which 19 illegal immigrants died inside a sweltering truck three years ago has asked for forgiveness before a judge sentenced her to 17 years in prison.
The immigrants, among 74 crammed into the back of an airtight truck, died from heat and suffocation as they were being secretly transported from the US-Mexico border to Houston on May 14, 2003, in what authorities said was the worst immigrant tragedy in US history.
Karla Chavez Joya, 28, wept while she stood before US District Judge Vanessa Gilmore and expressed remorse for her crime yesterday.
''If I could give my life to recover the lives of those people, I would do it,'' said the sobbing Chavez, dressed in a green jail uniform.
''I ask for forgiveness from the families of those people,'' she said through an interpreter. ''And I ask for forgiveness from the United States because I know I broke the law.'' Prosecutor Dan Rodriguez had sought a life sentence for Chavez, but her attorney, John LaGrappe, asked Gilmore to sentence her to the time she has already been behind bars, which is three years.
Chavez, who is from Honduras but was living in the United States legally, had earlier pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants.
Gilmore said there were ''both mitigating and aggravating circumstances'' in the case and sentenced her to 209 months, or 17 years and five months behind bars.
Thirteen others were arrested for their part in the deaths.
Most have pleaded guilty or been found guilty by a jury and one, Tyrone Williams, remains to be tried.
Williams, who drove the truck in which the immigrants died, faces a possible death sentence in the case.
He was tried last year, but the jury could not reach a verdict on all the charges against him, so he is awaiting retrial.
REUTERS DH RK0450