HOUSTON – The brand of stove at the center of a fire at a Texas home day care that killed four children and injured three others has been known to be problematic, an engineering expert told jurors Tuesday in the murder trial of the facility's owner.
Attorneys for Jessica Tata, who began their defense Tuesday, are trying to use the expert's testimony to bolster their claims that the deadly blaze might have been sparked by a malfunctioning stove and not by anything she did.
Prosecutors allege the blaze began after oil in a pan ignited on a stovetop burner Tata had left on. They also contend she had left the seven children she was caring for alone at her home to go shopping at a nearby Target store. The children in the February 2011 fire 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 only in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The testimony of Richard Bonyata, an electrical engineer, was cut short Tuesday as prosecutors insisted that their own expert — who last week told jurors he found no problems with the stove — be in the courtroom to listen to the defense expert. State District Judge Marc Brown sent the jury home early and ordered Bonyata's testimony to resume Wednesday.
During his brief time on the witness stand Tuesday, Bonyata testified that other stoves of the same brand had problems such as their burners turning on by themselves or unexpectedly jumping from low to high heat. Bonyata added he has investigated other cases where stove malfunctions were traced to faulty switches used to control the burner that are similar to ones found in the stove at Tata's day care.
"We see these malfunctions and it's common to look for these failures," Bonyata said.
During the trial, defense attorney Mike DeGeurin has alluded to a recall of similar switches and stoves and complaints by customers of this brand of stove, which is made by Electrolux.
Last week, David Reiter, the forensic electrical engineer testifying for prosecutors, told jurors he examined the stove and found no mechanical or electrical failures. Reiter said he determined 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.
A former Target manager previously told jurors that while Tata was at the store she remembered during a conversation that she had left the stove burner on.
Convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on before allegedly leaving the children alone 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 that led to the death.
Tata's defense began after prosecutors rested their case Monday following the testimony of about 30 witnesses over nearly two weeks.
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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