Jury sent home in Tata murder trial

Day care owner Jessica Tata charged with 4 counts of murder

HOUSTON - Jurors in the Jessica Tata murder trial were sent home early Tuesday after the defense began presenting a witness.

The prosecution rested its case Monday. As of Monday night, the defense did not have anyone on its witness list. However, an expert witness for the defense, an electrical engineer, began testifying Tuesday morning.

Prosecutors wanted their expert in court while the defense's expert testified. The judge called a recess for the day to allow the state's expert to hear the testimony, which will resume at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Tata, 24, is on trial, 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.

Four children were killed in the fire.

Susan Lahmeyer with the Texas Department of Family Protection Services took the stand on Monday. She testified that Tata took a six-hour orientation course in June 2009 that included instruction on state requirements, codes and best practices for child care. She applied for a permit to operate a home day care on Feb. 4, 2010.

Tata's home was inspected on Feb. 23, 2010, and two deficiencies were noted, Lahmeyer said. Inspectors said there were no fire extinguishers and carbon monoxide detectors in the home. Those problems were corrected and Tata received her permit on March 1, 2010.

Lahmeyer told the jury that Tata was only permitted to take care of six infants or toddlers and six school-aged children. Tata was caring for seven children under 3 years old at the time of the fire.

Tata's license was revoked after the fire. The agency found her guilty of neglect.

Prosecutors then rested their case.

Ronaldo Velasco, the owner of the home where Tata ran the day care, took the stand Friday and said he did not know that a day care was being operated in the home.

Fire expert David Reiter also testified. He said he thinks the fire started in the pan on the stove. He said it would have taken at least 15 minutes to heat the oil to more than 700 degrees before the fire began.

Reiter was asked about a consumer warnings about possible wiring problems, a recall on mechanical elements and if a knob malfunction could have caused the fire.

The jury also saw video of inside the home after the fire. There was extensive damage in the kitchen. The cabinets were gutted and the heat melted a microwave and part of the refrigerator. The video also showed the children's toys, cribs and clothing that were covered in soot.

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.

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