HOUSTON - A woman found guilty Tuesday in the death of one of four children killed in a fire at her Texas home day care while she left them alone to go shopping now faces the punishment phase of her trial.
Jessica Tata was away at a nearby Target store when a blaze broke out February 2011 at the day care in Houston, leaving 16-month-old Elias Castillo and four other unsupervised children dead and three others seriously injured. Authorities say the fire started when oil ignited in a pan atop a stovetop burner.
The jury began hearing evidence in the sentencing portion of the trial Tuesday afternoon, more than an hour after their verdict for a murder conviction was announced. They found the 24-year-old Tata guilty of one count of felony murder.
Tata had no visible reaction as the guilty verdict was read. Some of Elias' family and relatives of other victims present in the courtroom began to cry.
"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'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 still faces three more counts of felony murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
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 her shopping at Target just before the fire occurred. 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.