HOUSTON — A Texas woman convicted of murder in a child’s fire death at a home day care has a troubled past, say prosecutors trying to secure a stiff prison sentence for her.
They said the deadly blaze last year wasn’t Jessica Tata’s first time being involved in a fire. As a teen, she was convicted of at least one arson count after prosecutors said she started two bathroom fires on the same day in 2002 at her suburban Houston high school.
Testimony in the punishment phase of the 24-year-old Tata’s trial was to resume Wednesday, a day after a jury found her guilty of one count of felony murder. She faces up to life in prison.
The fire at the day care Tata ran in her Houston home killed 16-month-old Elias Castillo and three other children. Three more were seriously injured. Prosecutors said the fire started after Tata left a pan of oil on a stove while she went shopping at a nearby Target store. The children, who had been left unsupervised, could be heard crying inside the burning home out of the reach of neighbors.
Tata’s attorneys argued that she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years, and that she tried to save them. 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 Tuesday.
“She’s never lost sight of the real victims,” defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said of Tata. “She hasn’t forgotten that. It’s not all about her.”
One of Elias’ aunts, Nancy Villanueva, said the family was “thankful” and “happy” for the verdict.
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.
During the first day of the punishment phase, prosecutors had witnesses focus their testimony on Tata’s juvenile arson conviction. One of Tata’s friends from high school, Erica Barnett, said Tata admitted to her that she started two bathroom fires at the suburban Houston school on the same day in 2002. But Barnett told jurors she considered Tata to be a “good person.”
Robert Gex, who was the high school’s assistant principal, said Tata was a troublesome student before the fires and had been suspended.
“She was a bad and evil person,” Gex told jurors.
Tata, a ninth-grader at the time of the bathroom fires, pleaded guilty in juvenile court to at least one arson count and was given probation.
Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship. After the day care fire in February 2011, she fled to Nigeria and was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011.
She has remained jailed since then.
During her trial, which began Oct. 24, surveillance video was presented that showed Tata shopping at Target just before the fire occurred at her nearby 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 they could hear children crying inside the burning home but couldn’t reach them. 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.