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Trucker In Human Smuggling Case Sentenced To Life In Prison

Truck driver James Matthew Bradley Jr. was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Friday. Officers found 39 immigrants inside a vehicle that he was driving in July 2017. Ten of the passengers died.
Eric Gay

A U.S. district judge handed a sentence of life in prison today to a driver who was transporting undocumented immigrants in a tractor-trailer so hot that ten people died.

"I am so sorry it happened," said James Matthew Bradley Jr. in a video statement played in court which The San Antonio Express-News reported. "There's not a day or night that goes by that I don't relive this scene."

The vehicle was parked behind a Walmart in San Antonio on a hot night in July 2017. Following a call from a Walmart employee, law enforcement found 39 undocumented immigrants — eight that had already died and dozens more who were so sick that they required hospitalization. Two more immigrants died after the discovery was made. Up to 200 people were once inside the vehicle, survivors said, as quoted by in court documents.

It was nicknamed el camión de la muerte — the truck of death. Signs of struggle in the human smuggling operation were everywhere: a hole in the wall that people took turns to breathe through, blood, excrement and vomit said to be in the corners. Officers found Bradley, then 60, in the cab of the tractor-trailer with a gun.

The vivid reports sparked immediate shock and outrage. Richard L. Durbin Jr., U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas said later that day, "All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo. The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year. These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat."

Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a written statement, "To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat resulting in ten dead and 29 others hospitalized. Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life."

At first, Bradley told federal investigators that he became aware of his human cargo only after stopping for a bathroom break, as he heard people banging on the vehicle's doors. But in October he pleaded guilty to one count of transporting immigrants which resulted in death and one count of conspiracy.

It was not the first time Bradley had a run-in with law enforcement. The Express-News reported details of a criminal record that included charges of felony menacing and third-degree assault.

In this case, Durbin announced in September that the government would not seek the death penalty.

Bradley's defense hoped to shorten his sentence by arguing that he had cooperated with investigators when he gave them information that led to charges against one of the smugglers in the ring, The Express-News reported. The defense also argued that his act was manslaughter as opposed to second-degree murder, according to the paper.

His lawyers also tried to show how Bradley's background influenced the July incident, describing that he had dropped out of the sixth grade and traveled across the country as a hitchhiker.

In a letter written to the judge and reported by The Express-News, Bradley's relatives said, "We are shocked by his actions because this is not the James that we know, love or grew up with." They said they pray that his last years aren't spent in a prison cell because he has type-2 diabetes and a knee amputation. "We have been informed that his life span ranges from 5 to 7 years, according to his most recent medical examinations."

The family's letter, which was written by his sister, also reportedly stated that as a boy, Bradley dreamed of someday being a truck driver. He eventually found a commercial trucker to learn from, sometime after crawling into pipes by the highways to sleep.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.
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