HOUSTON - Three videos were shown in court Thursday in the felony murder trial of a former day care owner -- surveillance videos from two stores where Jessica Tata shopped the day her day care caught fire and a video of the children Tata shot hours before they died in the 2011 blaze.
Jurors got a brief glimpse into Tata's day care hours before the fatal fire. Tata shot the video on her cellphone. It showed her gathering the children for an activity.
The defense showed the video to the jury to demonstrate that Tata, 24, was a conscientious caretaker who loved the children in her care.
The video came as prosecutors questioned April Jackson, the mother of a child who was badly burned.
Jackson talked about the day that changed her son's life forever. DaJohn Ashley was 22 months old when he was burned. His mother testified about how she met Jessica Tata and that her son was only at the day care for a month. He now has permanent scars from that tragic day. She testified that she never heard from Tata after the fire.
All of the children were dropped off at Tata's home day care by 7:30 a.m. Less than half an hour, surveillance video from a nearby Walmart showed Tata walking through the store and then checking out. The store's security cameras photographed her van pulling into the store lot and parking in a fire lane.
Other cameras caught Tata shopping in the grocery department, where she bought two packages of hot dogs, a bag of grapes and a pepper.
Walmart employee Brian Smith told jurors that Tata took her time.
"She was in the building five or 10 minutes, and she was in no hurry to leave the building at all," he testified.
"How could you tell that?" a prosecutor asked.
"Her demeanor, especially at the register. She was actually asking about some other type of shopping bags that we have and she ran a price check. So, she wasn't in a hurry at all," Smith said.
None of the children were with Tata while she shopped. Investigators said they can't tell if any of the children may have been in her van.
Tata was charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Prosecutors say Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at a nearby Target, a fire broke out in the kitchen when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited. Three children were also seriously injured in the blaze.
The surveillance video from Target was shown to jurors late Thursday. She was in the store for 16 minutes, four minutes before the fire started.
A Target manager is expected to testify Friday morning.
Tata's attorneys say she didn't intend to hurt the children.
The mothers of the four children who died recounted for jurors Wednesday the despair and grief they felt in the wake of the deadly fire.
The mothers told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing their children were safe with her.
Keshia Brown, whose 16-month-old son Elias Castillo died in the fire, testified she was reassured because of the day care's Christian learning environment.
"She seemed like a nice person, knew what she was doing," said Brown, 21.
Tata showed no emotion most of the day, but wiped away tears during testimony from Betty Ukera, whose 20-month-old daughter Elizabeth died in the fire. Ukera and Tata had met in church in 2007 and were friends.
Ukera cried when she told jurors about the last time she saw her daughter alive -- when dropping her off at the day care.
"They walked away from my car. (Elizabeth) turned, waved at me. She would walk a little bit and wave at me," Ukera said.
Tiffany Dickerson, 26 -- whose 3-year-old son Shomari died and 2-year-old daughter Makayla was seriously injured -- told jurors she "collapsed to the floor" after learning of the fire. Her oldest daughter, then 5-year-old Kiyanna, was at school during the blaze.
Tata's attorneys say murder charges are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Tata initially told authorities she was in the home's bathroom when the fire happened. DeGeurin, Tata's attorney, attributed her lie to immaturity.
Legal experts say that if prosecutors can prove the deaths occurred because she abandoned the children to go shopping, they don't need to prove intent to harm to secure a murder conviction. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
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's trial is expected to last about a month. Testimony was to resume Thursday.
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