HOUSTON – The fate of a Texas woman facing a murder charge after a fire at her home day care killed four children was expected to be in the hands of a jury next week after testimony in her trial wrapped up Thursday.
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 in February 2011. The resulting fire also injured three other children.
Tata's defense attorneys told jurors she didn't intend to harm the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Tata's defense attorneys rested their case Thursday after calling only one witness, an electrical engineer who told jurors that he believed the stove was off during the fire. The engineer, who testified Wednesday, said evidence he reviewed indicated that a refrigerator near the stove couldn't be ruled out as the cause of the blaze.
But prosecutors on Thursday presented two rebuttal witnesses: an engineering expert who had previously testified that the stove was on during the blaze and a state investigator who said Tata admitted leaving the pan on the stove.
Their testimony was part of prosecutors' efforts to debunk defense attorneys' claims that the fire may have been started by a malfunctioning refrigerator or stove, and nothing Tata did.
Closing arguments in Tata's trial are scheduled for Monday. Jurors will be sequestered during their deliberations.
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.
One of the rebuttal witnesses, Kristi Malrey, told jurors Thursday that she spoke with Tata at her home the day of the fire.
"I asked her how many kids she had, how did the fire start," said Malrey, who works for the child care licensing division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. "She stated that she left a pan with oil on the fire. When she came out from the bathroom, she saw smoke. She left screaming out the door."
Tata had initially told investigators she was at home when the fire began, but video surveillance played for jurors showed Tata was at the Target store when the fire began. A former Target manager previously testified that she remembered during a conversation with Tata at the store that she'd left the stove burner on.
Prosecutors' second rebuttal witness was David Reiter, a forensic electrical engineer who reiterated for jurors — using photographs of the fire scene and a diagram of the stove's circuitry — that the fire started on the stove and spread to the refrigerator and other parts of the kitchen.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano asked him if he had any doubt that the stove was on. Reiter answered: "Not in my mind."
Convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on before leaving the children alone could be important for prosecutors in getting a felony murder conviction. Prosecutors do not need to show that Tata 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.
During the two week trial, prosecutors presented about 30 witnesses, including neighbors who testified about hearing the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to reach them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured testified that they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.
Tata's attorneys focused their defense on whether Tata's actions led to the fire, rather than trying to counter claims that she had left the children alone.
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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