HOUSTON – Attorneys for a woman on trial for murder suggested Friday the fire at her home day care that killed four children was sparked by a malfunctioning stove, trying to raise doubt about Texas prosecutors' claims that she left a pan on a hot burner.
But a forensic electrical engineer told jurors that he found no problems with the stove in Jessica Tata's home in Houston.
Investigators allege that Tata had left several children alone at her home to go shopping when oil in a pan ignited on a stovetop burner that had been left on. The February 2011 fire also injured three of the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Tata, 24, is charged with four counts of felony murder but is currently being tried in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin questioned whether there may have been a mechanical failure with a switch on the stove that controlled the burner. DeGeurin alluded to a recall of similar switches and complaints by customers who reported that stovetop burners were turning on by themselves or automatically shifting from a low to a high setting.
David Reiter, the forensic electrical engineer testifying for prosecutors, told jurors that he examined the stove and found no mechanical or electrical failures. Reiter said he determined that one of the burners had been on at the time of the fire and found no evidence indicating a problem with the stove's switches.
Reiter also showed jurors a video in which he demonstrated how a pan filled with oil could ignite within 15 minutes if left on a stovetop burner that was on.
"Is leaving a pan with oil on a hot burner an act clearly dangerous to human life," prosecutor Steve Baldassano asked Reiter.
"Yes," Reiter responded.
Tata, 24, is charged with four counts of felony murder but is currently being tried only in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on before allegedly leaving the children alone to go shopping could be important for prosecutors in getting a felony murder conviction.
Prosecutors do not need to show she intended to harm the children, only that the deaths occurred because her actions put them in danger. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.
Tata's attorneys insist she never intended to harm the children and that she tried to save them from the fire.
Along with the murder counts, Tata was indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
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