HOUSTON - The sister of a woman convicted of murder in a day care fire told a jury Friday that Jessica Tata feels bad about what happened and never intended to permanently leave the country.
Tata, a now former day-care owner, was found guilty Tuesday of murdering 16-month-old Elias Castillo.
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.
After the fire but before she was charged, she 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 murder conviction carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.
Tata's sister, Jennifer, told jurors that her sister was distraught after the fire. Jennifer Tata said Jessica Tata was taken to a hospital after the fire and didn't remember what happened.
Jennifer Tata said her sister was defiant and rebellious with her parents "but at 16/17 gave her life to Christ and improved as a person in general." She said her parents wanted Jessica Tata to get a college degree, but Jessica wanted to open a business instead.
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.
Eudora Walcott, a nurse whose grandson Isaac had been enrolled at Tata's day care, testified Isaac loved going with Tata and that she taught him his numbers and how to eat off his own plate and not grab other people's food. Walcott said she would sometimes help Tata at the day care and she always found the facility to be clean and orderly.
"What type of person is Jessica Tata?" defense attorney Mike DeGeurin asked.
"The person that I know was always there for the kids," Walcott said.
Pamela Ndamadi, 19, is a Tata family friend. She described Jessica Tata as "very nurturing, naturally. She wants to make sure everybody else is OK before she thinks about herself."
Eeba Karanwi is one of Tata's childhood friends. She told jurors that she and Tata worked together in their church's nursery. She described Tata as loving and caring. Karanwi said Tata had a good relationship with children.
"They love her," Karanwi said. "No kids had any problems with her."
On Thursday, two children Jessica Tata was paid to take care of told jurors that Tata often left kids home alone.
Kiyanna Richardson, 7, had two siblings in Jessica Tata's home during the fire. Her brother, Shomari, died. Her sister, Makayla, was injured.
Kiyanna, who was at school when the fire occurred, told jurors that Jessica Tata often left the children alone in the home. Tata told the children to not open the door, Kiyanna said.
A 7-year-old girl who Jessica Tata was paid to care for told a jury Thursday that it was not unusual for Jessica Tata to leave young children at her home alone while she ran errands. Brighten Long said that when she was 4 years old, Jessica Tata would put the older children in a van and take them to a McDonald's inside a Walmart store. Jessica Tata left the infants in their cribs, unattended, at the day care, Brighten said.
Holly Long said after she removed her Brighten and her son from Jessica Tata's day care after Brighten told her about things that were happening there.
Lindsay Lay lived near the day care. She said that she considered putting her child in Jessica Tata's day care in the fall of 2010. She said she walked to the day care several times between Halloween and Christmas. Lay said she could always hear children inside the home, but the van normally was not in the driveway. She testified that she knocked on the door several times and normally never got an answer. One time, Lay said, an unidentified woman answered the door.
Elias' mother also took the stand Thursday.
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.
During the punishment phase, Alfredo Galvan, a welfare fraud investigator, told jurors that Tata reported on state records that she was "self employed" and received money for "babysitting." He said Tata reported, on some applications, that she made $80 per week.
Galvan said that Jessica Tata received $4,136 worth of food stamps between December 2007 and February 2011. He said she was overpaid $3,981.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, several witnesses told jurors about Jessica Tata's history with fires.
Krystal Batts attended Taylor High School in Katy with Jessica Tata. said she had horrible memories when she heard about the fire at Jessica Tata's day care. Batts testified that her friendship with Jessica Tata ended the day in 2002 that Jessica Tata went up to her at school, showed her matches and said, "'I think I'm going to do something crazy.'"
Batts said a short time later, she heard the fire alarm and 3,000 students were evacuated from the school.
School officials testified that two fires Jessica Tata set caused about $2,000 worth of damage.
Jessica Tata has admitted to setting the fires because she was angry about being disciplined. She received probation and was required to undergo a counseling course called "Fire Stoppers," which is taught by the Houston Fire Department.
Houston Fire Department counselor Lisa Hayes testified that she warned Tata to think about her actions because she could kill people.
Jessica Tata's response was, according to Hayes, "I don't care."
Jessica Tata did not take the stand in her defense. Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he has not decided if Jessica Tata will testify in the punishment phase.
Jessica 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 Jessica Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping at a Target store. Jessica 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.
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