HOUSTON – The fire that killed four young children and seriously injured three others at a home day care facility in Houston began when oil ignited inside a frying pan on a stove top burner that had been left on.
Attorneys for the day care's owner insist she never meant to harm anyone. But legal experts say that if prosecutors can prove the deaths occurred because she abandoned the children to go shopping at a nearby Target, they don't need to prove intent to harm to secure a murder conviction that could send her to prison for life.
Testimony is expected to begin this week in the trial of Jessica Tata, 24, who fled to Nigeria after the February 2011 blaze but was later captured by authorities. She faces four felony murder charges as well as five other counts, including abandoning a child. The seven children inside the home during the fire ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
The jury could be chosen Tuesday with opening statements scheduled for Wednesday in a trial expected to last at least a month. Tata initially is being tried on one of the murder counts related to 16-month-old Elias Castillo, who died of smoke inhalation.
Prosecutors declined to comment before the trial. Her lawyers insist the charges are excessive and that when the blaze broke out, Tata tried to save the children.
"People having an emotional reaction without knowing all the facts, that's the hardest thing," Mike DeGeurin, one of Tata's attorneys, said last week.
Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said while he doesn't think Tata intended to kill the children, that won't be the key issue at her trial. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony, such as abandoning a child, and that action led to the death.
"It's going to be hard to find a legitimate reason to excuse the abandonment of these children," Hilder said.
Besides the four murder charges, Tata also is charged with three counts of abandoning a child and two of reckless injury to a child. She remained jailed on bonds totaling more than $1.1 million since being returned to the U.S. from Nigeria in March 2011. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
At a pretrial hearing last week, Tata's attorneys tried to suppress several pieces of evidence, including a Target store receipt that arson investigators found at the home hours after the fire. Prosecutors say it shows she was shopping at the time of the blaze.
Tata had told authorities she was in the home's bathroom when the fire broke out.
DeGeurin had argued investigators needed a search warrant because the receipt was at the bottom of a bag and not plainly visible. State District Judge Marc Brown disagreed, allowing the evidence.
Grant Scheiner, a Houston criminal defense attorney not involved in the case, said the defense's hardest task will be explaining how children "who couldn't fend for themselves were left in a clearly dangerous situation."
But prosecutors could face a challenge in convincing jurors Tata is guilty of murder, he said.
"It's a lot to ask a jury to hold somebody accountable for murder charges ... when clearly there was no intent to kill," Scheiner said.
Joel Androphy, another Houston attorney not connected to the case, said he believes Tata will be convicted in the case. The question will be if jurors decide Tata abandoned the children and that led to their deaths, he said.
"If the evidence is there, there should not be a problem in convicting her of murder," Androphy said.
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