HOUSTON – Deliberations began Monday afternoon in the felony murder trial of a Houston woman who was out shopping while a fire broke out at her home day care, a blaze that killed four of seven unsupervised children.
The jury got the case after the morning's closing arguments. The attorney for Jessica Tata said the deadly blaze was a "tragic accident," not a murder, and might have been started by a malfunctioning refrigerator.
Prosecutors called the claim about the refrigerator "crazy." They alleged Tata had left hot oil on a stove when she left the children alone to shop at a nearby Target store in February 2011. The resulting fire also injured three children.
Tata, 24, is charged with four counts of felony murder but is currently being tried on only one of the counts: for the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted of felony murder, though jurors can find her guilty on several lesser counts.
Jurors deliberated for about 4 ½ hours before ending their work. They were set to resume deliberating Tuesday. The jury is being sequestered during their deliberations.
Tata's attorney presented his closing argument first. Prosecutors said they chose to follow the defense so they could have all of their time in one block.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said Tata failed in her duty to protect the children and is now trying to avoid responsibility for what she did. As Baldassano told jurors Tata had broken her promises to keep the children safe, he pointed to the parents of the dead or injured children who were in the courtroom.
"They are trying to blame the stove, the refrigerator. She's the only person to blame. It's 100 percent her fault," he said.
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin acknowledged the former day care owner left the children alone.
"She should never have left. It was a terrible accident ... What it's not is murder," he said.
DeGeurin questioned whether the stove was on when Tata left and suggested that burn patterns and other evidence points to the refrigerator as a possible cause of the blaze.
DeGeurin also questioned testimony from a former Target manager who said he remembered Tata saying she had left the stove burner on and didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave the store. DeGeurin said Tata or the manager might have misremembered.
"Who among us has not self-doubted yourself in a situation like that?" he said.
But Baldassano again showed jurors surveillance video of Tata shopping at Target during the time her home was on fire.
As the video played, Baldassano said Tata never seemed rushed, even after remembering the stove was on.
"She doesn't seem to care at all she left those kids home alone," he said. "She's just hanging out, going to Target."
Tata had initially told investigators she was at home when the fire began.
Jurors can convict Tata of several, less serious charges in this trial: recklessly causing serious bodily injury to a child, abandoning a child, endangering a child and causing serious bodily injury to a child by criminal negligence. The lesser charges carry prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years.
Convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on 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 rescue them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured testified that they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
In addition to the felony murder counts, Tata was also indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.