Both sides rest in day care murder trial

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder

HOUSTON - The defense and prosecution in the Jessica Tata murder trial rested their cases on Thursday.

Tata, 24, is charged with felony murder. Prosecutors said she left several children home alone with a pan of grease heating on a stove while she went shopping in 2011. When she got home, the house was on fire, officials said.

After the defense rested on Thursday morning, the prosecution called two rebuttal witnesses.

The first witness for the defense took the stand on Wednesday. Richard Bonyata was hired by the defense to inspect the evidence found after the fire.

Bonyata suggested that the burner switch on the stove may have been faulty. He said similar switches on other stoves had caused burners to turn on or jump in temperature on their own.

Bonyata also said that an electrical malfunction in the refrigerator could have also caused the fire. He said there was heavy fire damage to the refrigerator and the area around it. He testified that a damaged electrical relay was recovered after the fire and records showed that someone tried to repair the refrigerator a week before the fire.

The prosecution had arson experts in court to listen to Bonyata's testimony. Earlier in the trial, the prosecution's engineering expert testified that he examined the stove after the fire and determined one of the burners had been on. He said that there were no problems with the stove's switches.

David Reiter, an engineer and certified fire investigator, was called back to the stand on Thursday. He testified that the primary fire and heat patterns are like footprints in the snow -- if you follow them correctly, you will find the origin. He said all of the patterns point to the top of the stove as the cause of the fire. He said the fire pattern near the stove is not consistent with fire coming from the refrigerator, as Bonyata suggested, but the burn pattern on the wall behind the stove is consistent with the heat signature on the stove.

Prosecutors have also been telling the jury that it does not matter how the fire started, what matters is that evidence shows Tata left the children alone.

Kristi Smith with the Texas Department of Family Protective Services was the second rebuttal witness. She said that when she went to the home during the fire, she found Tata standing outside with neighbors. Smith said Tata told her that she was in the bathroom when the fire started and that she had vegetable oil heating on the stove. Tata told her that she came out of the bathroom, saw the fire, grabbed her keys and ran out the back door to yell for help.

Closing arguments will be held on Monday. The jury will be sequestered during deliberations.

Tata has been charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.

Prosecutors said Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at 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.

Tata's attorneys said she didn't intend to hurt the children. Defense attorneys said 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.

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.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.