HOUSTON – A refrigerator, not a stove, might be to blame for causing a fire at a Texas home day care that killed four children and injured three others, an engineering expert told jurors Wednesday during the owner's murder trial.
Prosecutors allege that Jessica Tata had hot oil cooking on a stove at her day care when she left the children alone to go shopping at a nearby Target store. But Tata's defense attorneys have told jurors she didn't intend to harm the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old, and that the February 2011 fire was not caused by anything their client did.
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.
Electrical engineer Richard Bonyata, testifying for Tata, told jurors he believes a switch that would have been used to turn on the burner in question was in the off position at the time of the blaze.
Because of that, he said, "You would have to consider all other competent ignition sources ... and completely eliminate everything else."
Bonyata said the evidence pointed to the refrigerator as a possible source, citing heavy damage to the refrigerator's doors, as well as to the cabinets and woodwork next to and above the refrigerator. He also cited burn patterns that seemed to come from behind the refrigerator and damage to its compressor, which is at the bottom of the appliance and away from the stove top.
"There's evidence it certainly can't be ruled out," he said.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano, when questioning Bonyata, suggested to jurors that the engineer's review of the evidence, including his belief the stove top burner was off, was rushed since he was only hired by the defense team on Monday and that Bonyata's examination was incomplete because he did not go to the scene of the fire.
In addition to the possibly malfunctioning refrigerator, Tata's attorneys have previously suggested that the burner switch might have malfunctioned. They have alluded to problems with other stoves with similar switches, such as their burners turning on by themselves or unexpectedly jumping from low to high heat.
Last week, David Reiter, a forensic electrical engineer who testified for prosecutors, said 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.
Along with the murder counts, Tata was indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Testimony in the trial, which began two weeks ago, was to resume Thursday.
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