Posted: Oct 24, 2012 3:39 PM by AP
HOUSTON (AP) - A woman charged with murder after a 2011 fire at her Houston home day care killed four children betrayed the families who had entrusted her with their kids' lives, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Jessica Tata, 24, faces up to life in prison if convicted of felony murder. Three children were also seriously injured in the February 2011 fire, which began when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited.
Tata had left the children home alone to go shopping at a nearby Target store.
Family members of the children were in court Wednesday as prosecutor Steve Baldassano addressed jurors at the beginning of Tata's trial.
"You are going to hear about trust and betrayal ... and how the betrayal of that trust led to the deaths of four innocent, helpless children," Baldassano said in his opening statement.
Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said his client had no intention of causing harm.
"It was a dream of Ms. Tata to be a caregiver," DeGeurin said. "She'd been caring for children since she was a child. It was something she was good at. She began to believe 'I can do this.' "
Tata was indicted on nine charges, including four counts of felony murder. She is being tried on one of the murder counts, for 16-month-old Elias Castillo.
The prosecution's first witness - Tiffany Dickerson, whose 3-year-old son Shomari died and 2-year-old daughter Makayla was seriously injured - told jurors she had entrusted her kids with Tata, believing the day care owner was "organized ... and energetic and she really seemed to like kids."
Dickerson told jurors she "collapsed to the floor" after learning her two children had been the fire. Her oldest daughter, then 5-year-old Kiyanna, was also being taken care of by Tata but was at school during the fire.
Dickerson's children were taken to separate hospitals and she told jurors she was not with her son when he died.
"I never got to see my baby again," Dickerson said, tearfully.
During a break in testimony, one of Elias Castillo's relatives said she doesn't believe it matters if Tata claims she never intended to harm the children.
"She did what she did. She abandoned the kids. End of story," said Vivian Sanchez, Elias' aunt. "I just want her to pay for what she did" with life in prison.
Tata also faces three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Legal experts say that if prosecutors can prove the deaths occurred because she abandoned the children to go shopping, they don't need to prove intent to harm to secure a murder conviction. 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.
Baldassano said Wednesday prosecutors would present video of Tata at Target around the time of the blaze. An employee will testify about speaking with Tata and remembering that she mentioned leaving the stovetop on, Baldassano said.
Even after remembering that, Tata stopped at a Starbucks inside the store and did not seem to be in a hurry to leave, he said.
Baldassano said prosecutors would also present evidence that would show Tata had left the children home alone earlier on the day of the fire to shop at a Wal-Mart.
Tata's attorneys say murder charges are excessive and that when the fire broke out, she tried to save the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.
Tata had initially told authorities she was in the home's bathroom when the fire happened. DeGeurin, Tata's attorney, attributed her lie to immaturity.
DeGeurin also said Tata had genuinely forgotten about leaving the stovetop on and that the stove's glass top would make it difficult to see if one of the electric burners was on.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured by authorities after about a month. She was returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed since then.
She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship. DeGeurin denied Tata had fled to Nigeria and had only gone there to see her father.
Tata's trial is expected to last about a month.