HOUSTON - A murder trial stemming from a fire at a Houston home day care center that left four children dead and injured three others began Wednesday with opening statements and a mother of two victims testifying through tears.
Jessica Tata, 24, was charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
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.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano told jurors in opening statements what happened when the fire started in the house and that Tata was shopping at Target at the time. Baldassano said Tata was asked by a Target manager to do a survey, and Tata then asked the manager if she had time since she left a burner on at home. The manager told Tata to go home and turn off the burner, according to the prosecutor.
Even after remembering the stove top, Tata stopped at a Starbucks Coffee inside the store, he said.
Tata's attorneys said it happened differently and when the Target manager asked Tata to do the survey, she remembered that she "may have" left a burner on and needed to home.
Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said his client had no intention of causing harm.
"It was a dream of Ms. Tata to be a caregiver," DeGuerin said. "She'd been caring for children since she was a child. It was something she was good at. She began to believe 'I can do this."'
A mother of three children, Tiffany Dickerson, broke down in tears as she testified Wednesday. She was working as a nurse's aide at a nearby hospital and was helping treat victims of the fire when she got a call to say that her children may be involved. She went to an emergency room and saw her little girl's dress. Her son, Shomari, died and her daughter, Maykala, was badly burned. She tearfully testified that she had to decide whether to stay with her daughter or go to see her son for a final time. She never saw him again.
According to the timeline presented to the jury, the kids were all in the day care by 7:30 a.m. But 30 minutes later, prosecutors said cellphone records showed Tata was shopping at a nearby Walmart. She returned to the house and then left again, showing up on security video at a Target store at 1:09 p.m. and leaving at 1:24. The fire was reported four minutes later.
Prosecutors said Tata left oil in a frying pan over a stove top burner that ignited the blaze while she was at the store.
Tata fled to Nigeria after the fire, but before she was charged. She was captured a month later. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Lawyers questioned more than 100 prospective jurors for the case. A panel of seven women, five men and two female alternates was chosen.
If convicted, Tata could face up to life in prison. The trial is expected to last about a month.
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