HOUSTON - Jessica Tata was sentenced to 80 years in prison Tuesday for her role in a fire that left four children dead. The former day-care owner was found guilty of felony murder on Nov. 13.
Tata's murder conviction carried a possible sentence between 5 years and life in prison. She was also fined $10,000. Tata did not say anything after the verdict was read. The victims' impact statements will be read Tuesday afternoon.
Tata, 24, left a group of 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 Castillo, 16 months, Shomari Dickerson, 3, Elizabeth Kojah, 20 months, and Kendyll Stradford, 20 months, all died in the fire. Three other children were hurt. Tata was convicted of Elias' murder.
"She has no one to blame but herself," Assistant District Attorney Steve Baldassano said. "It wasn't the stove's fault. It was her fault."
Jurors took eight hours to decide on punishment. Tata will be eligible for parole in 30 years.
"Merely because you become eligible for parole doesn't mean you will ever see the free world again. Because of that deadly weapon finding, because of the determination that fire was in fact a deadly weapon, Ms. Tata will serve 30 calendar years, day for day, before she even takes a peek at parole. She'll be 54 before she even becomes eligible. Given the fact that this case, and the monumental tragedy that this case presents, I'd be surprised if she ever really saw the outside of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice," said Brian Wice, KPRC Local 2's legal analyst.
Elias' family said they were happy Tata received a harsh punishment. They also said they hope it leads to changes in how people are able obtain day care licenses.
"This has been really hard for us," said Patty Sparks, Elias' great-grandmother. "No one wins here. This sentence is a lot of years. I hope the state of Texas does a better job of doing background checks."
Prosecutors said that Tata lied on her application for a day care license. She had an arson conviction as a minor and did not disclose that information, which is required by law.
Tata's conviction will be appealed, but Wice said her chances of winning that are not good.
"Traditionally, the defendant has a 4 to 5 percent chance of prevailing on appeal in a non-death-penalty case," Wice said.
Closing arguments in the punishment phase were held on Monday morning. Tata wiped away tears as her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said the fire and deaths were an accident. He said Tata made a mistake and never intended for the children to be hurt because she loved them.
"She should have called for help or she should have said to herself, 'I'll wait until they wake up, change their diapers, I'll load them up in the car and we'll go to Target together,'" DeGeurin said. "But she didn't."
Assistant District Attorney Connie Spence said there was evidence that Tata left the children home alone in the past. She said the children came second to Tata's personal desires.
"If that was the first time she had ever left those babies alone, she would be in a hurry," Spence said. "She would be panicked, thinking, 'OK, I need to get home. I need to get home.' She made her life the priority, not those babies. She was going to do what she needed to do and work around the babies."
Jessica Tata did not take the stand in her defense. She 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.
"There are seven more trials to go," DeGeurin said. "Do we start the next trial soon or wait until the appeal is over. There are some decisions that have to be made."
"I would think that with this monumentally stiff, draconian sentence, and the fact that Jessica Tata is going to be a ward of the prison system for a very, very long time, the state would have to ask itself the question: Do they want to put the surviving family members through the crucible of yet another trial or trials? Just sitting through this one trial, it's not likely to get any easier," Wice said.
"I feel for the family of Jessica Tata," Sparks said. "I don't think they can go through another trial."
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