HOUSTON – A Texas woman was convicted of murder Tuesday in the death of one of four children who died in a fire at her home day care after she left them alone with hot oil on the stove while she shopped at Target.
Neighbors said they could hear children crying inside the burning Houston home but couldn't reach them. The fire last year killed 16-month-old Elias Castillo and three other children. Three more were seriously injured.
Jurors found Jessica Tata guilty of one count of felony murder after deliberating for about six hours over two days. She faces a sentence of up to life in prison.
Testimony in the punishment phase of her trial started Tuesday afternoon, with prosecution witnesses telling jurors about an arson conviction Tata received as a juvenile. Witnesses said Tata, now 24, started two bathroom fires on the same day in 2002 at her suburban Houston high school. The then-ninth-grader pleaded guilty in juvenile court to at least one arson count and was given probation.
"She was a bad and evil person," said Robert Gex, who was the high school's assistant principal. He told jurors Tata was troublesome even before the fires and had been suspended.
One of Tata's friends from high school, Erica Barnett, said Tata admitted to her that she started the fires. But Barnett told jurors she considered Tata to be a "good person."
Testimony in the punishment phase was to resume on Wednesday.
Tata's attorneys argued that she never intended to hurt her day care children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years, and that she tried to save them during the February 2011 fire. But prosecutors did not need to show she intended to harm the children, only that the deaths occurred because she put them in danger by leaving them alone. 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 had no visible reaction as the guilty verdict was read. Some of Elias' family and relatives of other victims began to cry in the courtroom.
"We're thankful for today's verdict," said Nancy Villanueva, one of Elias' aunts. "We're happy."
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he accepted the jury's decision and would now focus on sentencing.
"She's never lost sight of the real victims," DeGeurin said of Tata. "She hasn't forgotten that. It's not all about her."
Tata still faces three more counts of felony murder in relation to the other children who died, and three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child in relation to the three who were injured.
Tata fled to Nigeria in the wake of the fire but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed since. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
During her trial, which began Oct. 24, surveillance video was presented that showed Tata shopping at a nearby Target just before the fire occurred at her home day care. A former Target manager told jurors that Tata did not seem to be in a hurry after realizing she had left the stove on while the kids were at the day care.
Neighbors testified that they heard the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to rescue them from the blaze. Parents told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.
Defense attorneys presented expert testimony to argue that faulty kitchen equipment may have sparked the fire.
Jurors also could have found Tata guilty of four lesser counts. There was brief confusion in court Tuesday when the jury indicated it had reached a verdict, and state District Judge Marc Brown sent them back because they had chosen multiple counts instead of one.