HOUSTON (AP) — 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. Continued...