HOUSTON — A woman accused in the deaths of four children in a fire at her home day care in Houston was found guilty Tuesday on one count of felony murder.
Jessica Tata, 24, faces up to life in prison for the February 2011 death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. Authorities say Tata left Elias and six other children unsupervised while she went to a nearby Target store. The fire started when oil ignited in a pan atop a stovetop burner. Three other children were seriously injured in the fire.
The jury will hear evidence in the punishment phase of her trial.
She still faces three more counts of felony murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Tata's attorneys argued 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 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 Tata's 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 of the children who died or were injured 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.