HOUSTON - Jurors sentenced Jessica Tata to 80 years in prison Tuesday. The former day-care owner was found guilty of felony murder after a fire that killed four children.
Tata was found guilty on Nov. 13 of murdering 16-month-old Elias Castillo. Tata's murder conviction carried a possible sentence between 5 years and life in prison.
She was also fined $10,000. Tata did not say anything after the verdict was read. The victims' impact statements will be read Tuesday afternoon.
Tata, 24, left children in a home on Crest Park near Waypark alone with a pan of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping on Feb. 24, 2011. When she got home, the house was on fire. Elias, Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, and Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, all died in the fire. Three other children were hurt.
Jurors took eight hours to decide on punishment. Tata will be eligible for parole in 30 years.
Closing arguments in the punishment phase were held on Monday morning. Tata wiped away tears as her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said the fire and deaths were an accident. He said Tata made a mistake and never intended for the children to be hurt because she loved them.
"She should have called for help or she should have said to herself, 'I'll wait until they wake up, change their diapers, I'll load them up in the car and we'll go to Target together,'" DeGeurin said. "But she didn't."
DeGeurin said that Tata will pay forever, no matter how long she spends in prison, for using bad judgment.
"She thought, 'They'll be fine. I'll be back in 20 to 30 minutes and they'll be fine.' That is where she was wrong and that is where she's going to live with that decision for the rest of her life. She mourns for those children," DeGeurin said.
Assistant District Attorney Connie Spence said there was evidence that Tata left the children home alone in the past. She said the children came second to Tata's personal desires.
"If that was the first time she had ever left those babies alone, she would be in a hurry," Spence said. "She would be panicked, thinking, 'OK, I need to get home. I need to get home.' She made her life the priority, not those babies. She was going to do what she needed to do and work around the babies."
DeGeurin urged the jury to not let emotions be the driving force in how many years they decide Tata should spend in prison.
"Guard against being whipped up into emotion and doing something out of anger," DeGeurin said.
"What we want is justice," Spend said. "Not vengeance."
Prosecutors pushed for the maximum sentence.
"What's a child's life worth? How can you put a number on a child's life? They will never be back, and what could have been will never be," Spence said.
As attorney's went over the evidence for the last time in this trial, Elias' and Shomari's mothers held hands and wept.
Jurors heard from several witnesses during the punishment phase, including Tata's sister and the victim's mother.
After the fire but before she was charged, Tata went to Nigeria. She was arrested in that country in March 2011 and returned to the United States. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Tata's sister, Jennifer, told jurors that her sister was distraught after the fire.
Jennifer Tata said her sister went to Nigeria after she was released from the hospital to talk with her father. Jennifer Tata said her sister had no intention of not returning to the United States.
Elias' mother also took the stand.
Keisha Brown chuckled as she described Elias as a happy baby who seemed to always be smiling. Tears began to flow when she recounted how she learned her son had been hurt in the fire at the day care. Brown said she rushed to the hospital where Elias was being treated. She had all the hope a mother could that he would pull through, but he died the next day.
"Can't nobody say a single word and make you feel better ... because your heart is breaking," Brown said.
As Brown testified, one of the jurors was seen crying. Jessica Tata stared down at the table in front of her.
Jessica Tata did not take the stand in her defense. She 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.
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