HOUSTON - The second day of deliberations began Tuesday for a jury in the trial of a day-care owner charged with murder after a fatal fire. Jurors were sequestered Monday night when they did not reach a verdict.
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, officials said.
Jurors will be able to convict her of a lesser crime, a judge ruled Friday.
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. Elias' family cried during closing arguments.
Tata was charged with four counts of murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. She did not take the stand in her defense.
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 are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children.
The defense claims that the fire did not start because of the grease on the stove.
Each side got one hour for closing arguments.
"If they did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the switch was on when Ms. Tata left to go to Target, then they don't have murder," defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said.
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 are complicated and about 30 pages long. They allow 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, which has a maximum penalty of life in prison.
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.
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