Jessica Tata found guilty in fatal day-care fire

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder

HOUSTON - A day-care owner was found guilty of murder Tuesday after a fatal fire that left four children dead.

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

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 stood trial for felony murder first for the youngest of the victims -- Elias Castillo. Elias' family cried during closing arguments and was emotional after the verdict was read.

It took the jurors about six hours over two days to reach their verdict.

"We're thankful for today's verdict and we're happy," said Nancy Villanuvea, Elias' aunt.

Tata's murder conviction carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. Each juror was polled and each said they found that Tata used a deadly weapon, fire, in the crime. Tata did not show any emotion when the verdict was read.

"The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict and we move on with the second phase of the trial," defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said.

The punishment phase began Tuesday at 1 p.m. and could last up to two weeks. Prosecutors said they had 25 witnesses to call. Four testified on Tuesday.

One of the first witnesses told jurors about Tata's past fire history. The witness said Tata was arrested in 2002, when she was a freshman at Katy's Taylor High School. She set two fires, one in the main building and another in the ninth-grade building, that caused about $2,000 worth of damage, the witness said.

Jurors will hear from Elias' family.

"Certainly the most powerful card the state will get to play is what we call victim impact testimony," KPRC Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said. "We are going to hear from little Elias Castillo's relatives, who will tell this jury, in graphic terms, I'm sure, the effect on their lives that little Elias' death had on them. I'm telling you, in 30 years of being in this building, there is no evidence that is more powerful in the punishment stage of any trial."

Tata did not take the stand in her defense. Jurors were given the option of convicting her of a lesser charge.

"She's never lost sight of the real victims. The real people to have concern for are the families that lost their children. She hasn't forgotten that. It's not all about her. It's about a lot more than her," DeGeurin said.

DeGeurin said he has not decided if Tata will testify in the punishment phase.

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 Tata put the children in harm's way by leaving them alone and going shopping at a Target store. 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.

The defense claimed that the fire did not start because of the grease on the stove.

Each side had one hour for their closing arguments on Monday.

DeGeurin focused on the origin of the fire. He told the jury that the fire may have been caused by an electrical malfunction in the refrigerator or stove. He claimed it was an accident and not murder.

"Jessica Tata should have never left those children alone," DeGeurin said. "She should never have left. She never intended to harm those children. What it's not is murder."

Prosecutors called the claim about the refrigerator "crazy."

Prosecutors said it doesn't matter what caused the fire -- what matters is that Tata left the children home alone. Prosecutors showed surveillance video of Tata inside the Target store when the fire ignited.

Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said Tata failed in her duty to protect the children and is now trying to avoid responsibility for what she did. As Baldassano told jurors Tata had broken her promises to keep the children safe, he pointed to the parents of the dead or injured children who were in the courtroom.

"They are trying to blame the stove, the refrigerator. She's the only person to blame. It's 100 percent her fault," he said.

Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony that led to the death.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors presented about 30 witnesses, including neighbors who testified about hearing the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to rescue them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured testified that they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.

On Friday, the judge and attorneys met for four hours to draft the jury instructions. The final instructions to the jury were complicated and about 30 pages long. They allowed jurors to consider finding Tata guilty on lesser charges, including second-degree felony child abandonment, state jail felony child abandonment, injury to a child and child endangerment. All of those charges would carry a lighter sentence than felony murder.

After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship. She was not charged with a crime at the time she left the country.

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