Closing arguments begin in Jessica Tata trial

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder


HOUSTON – Closing arguments began Monday morning in the trial of a day-care owner charged with murder after a fatal fire.

Jessica Tata, 24, is charged with felony murder. Prosecutors said she left several children home alone with a pan of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping. When she got home, the house was on fire, officials said.

Jurors will be able to convict her of a lesser crime during deliberations, a judge ruled Friday.

Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, and Elias Castillo, 16 months, died in the fire at Jackie's Child Care on Crest Park at Waypark Drive shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2011. Three other children were injured. Tata is standing trial for felony murder first for the youngest of the victims -- Elias Castillo.

Tata was charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. She did not take the stand.

Prosecutors said Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping at a Target store. Tata's attorneys said she didn't intend to hurt the children. Defense attorneys said murder charges are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children.

The defense claims that the fire did not start because of the grease on the stove. They had an expert testify that an electrical malfunction caused the fire. Prosecutors said it doesn't matter what caused the fire -- what matters is that Tata left the children home alone. Prosecutors showed surveillance video of Tata inside the Target store when the fire ignited.

On Friday, the judge and attorneys met for four hours to draft the jury instructions.

The final instructions to the jury are complicated and about 30 pages long. They will allow jurors to consider to find Tata guilty on lesser charges, including second-degree felony child abandonment, state jail felony child abandonment, injury to a child and child endangerment. All of those charges would carry a lighter sentence than felony murder.