Witnesses testify about Tata's fire history

Day-care owner Jessica Tata found guilty of murder

HOUSTON - Jessica Tata has a history of setting fires, witnesses testified in the punishment phase of Tata's murder trial. One of them told jurors that Tata told her she didn't care if her actions killed people.

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

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.

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.

The punishment phase began about two hours after the verdict was read and could last up to two weeks. Prosecutors said they had 25 witnesses to call.

On Wednesday, one of Tata's former classmates told jurors about Tata's time as a student at Taylor High School in Katy. Krystal Batts said she had horrible memories when she heard about the fire at Tata's day care.

"I'm still a little shaken up about it," Batts said.

Batts testified that her friendship with Tata ended the day in 2002 that Tata went up to her at school, showed her matches and said, "'I think I'm going to do something crazy.'"

Batts said a short time later, she heard the fire alarm and 3,000 students were evacuated from the school. She said she was then terrified of Tata.

On Tuesday, a school official told jurors that Tata set two fires, one in the main building and another in the ninth-grade building, that caused about $2,000 worth of damage.

Tata has admitted to setting the fires because she was angry about being disciplined. She received probation and was required to undergo a counseling course called "Fire Stoppers," which is taught by the Houston Fire Department.

Houston Fire Department counselor Lisa Hayes testified that she warned Tata to think about her actions because she could kill people.

Tata's response was, according to Hayes, "I don't care."

Tata's former juvenile detention supervisor, Richard Sizemore, told the jury that Tata was written up 13 times, mostly for refusing to follow directions and disruptive outbursts, while she was in the Juvenile Detention Center for three months.

Tata later attended Mayde Creek High School. Sandra Wilson, an assistant principal, testified that Tata had several problems there. Wilson said Tata threw a carton of milk off a building, splashing another assistant principal. Wilson also said that Tata forged her grades so she could be in a school play. Wilson testified that she disciplined Tata for that and Tata later followed her car after school. Wilson said she had to take evasive action because she did not want Tata to know where she lived.

"The state is building, brick by brick, just as they do in a capital case, that this defendant is not just negligent but someone who is dangerous," KPRC Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said.

Susan Lahmeyer, formerly with the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services, told the jury that Tata did not reveal her juvenile arson case when she applied for a day care permit, which was required by state law. Laymeyer said Tata may have been denied a permit if the state knew about that case.

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.

Jurors will hear from Elias' family during the punishment phase.

"Certainly the most powerful card the state will get to play is what we call victim impact testimony," 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," defense attorney Mike 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.

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.

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 Click2Houston.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.