Jessica Tata found guilty in fatal day-care fire

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder


HOUSTON – A day-care owner was found guilty of murder Tuesday after a fatal fire that left four children dead.

Jessica Tata, 24, was charged with felony murder. Prosecutors said she left 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.

Her murder conviction carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. The punishment phase will begin Tuesday afternoon and could last up to two weeks.

Each juror was polled and each said they found that Tata used a deadly weapon, fire, in the crime.

Tata did not take the stand in her defense. Jurors were given the option of convicting her of a lesser charge.

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 stood trial for felony murder first for the youngest of the victims -- Elias Castillo. Elias' family cried during closing arguments.

Tata faces three additional counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. Trials on those charges have not yet been scheduled.

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 were excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children.

The defense claimed that the fire did not start because of the grease on the stove.

Each side had one hour for their closing arguments on Monday.

"If they did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the switch was on when Ms. Tata left to go to Target, then they don't have murder," defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said during.

DeGeurin focused on the origin of the fire. He told the jury that the fire may have been caused by an electrical malfunction in the refrigerator or stove. He claimed it was an accident and not murder.

"Jessica Tata should have never left those children alone," DeGeurin said. "She should never have left. She never intended to harm those children. What it's not is murder."

Prosecutors called the claim about the refrigerator "crazy."

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.

Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said Tata failed in her duty to protect the children and is now trying to avoid responsibility for what she did. As Baldassano told jurors Tata had broken her promises to keep the children safe, he pointed to the parents of the dead or injured children who were in the courtroom.

"They are trying to blame the stove, the refrigerator. She's the only person to blame. It's 100 percent her fault," he said.

Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony that led to the death.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors presented about 30 witnesses, including neighbors who testified about hearing the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to rescue them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured testified that they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.

On Friday, the judge and attorneys met for four hours to draft the jury instructions. The final instructions to the jury were complicated and about 30 pages long. They allowed jurors to consider finding 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.

After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship. She was not charged with a crime at the time she left the country.