HOUSTON — After confusion caused by a mistake on the verdict paperwork, jurors found Jessica Tata guilty of murder for the west Houston day care fire that killed four children.
They began the sentencing phase of the trial Tuesday afternoon. Prosecutors are expectded to call 20 witnesses, including parents of the victims. Tata faces from five years to life in prison.
"From the bottom of our hearts, we're thankful for today's verdict and we're happy and that's all I have to say," said Nancy Villanueva, one victim's aunt, as she choked back tears.
In a bizarre series of events, jurors announced they had a verdict just before 11 Tuesday morning. But the judge sent them back to work because they had checked multiple options on their verdict paperwork.
They returned again and attorneys were told the jury would resume deliberations. Tata was taken out of the courtroom.
The third time jurors came back, the guilty verdict was announced. Tata showed little emotion when the verdict was read. She sat with her head down as the judge polled the jurors.
"She's never lost sight of the fact that the real victims, the real people to have concern for are the families who lost their children,"said Defense Attorney Mike DeGeurin. "She hasn't forgotten that. You know, it's not all about her. It's about a lot more than her."
Tata was charged with murder for the February 2011 day care fire that killed four children and injured three others.
Elias Castillo, Elizabeth Kojah, Kendyll Stradford and Shomari Dickerson were trapped inside the burning day care in February 2011.
This trial was for the death of 15-month-old Elias, the youngest victim. His relatives broke down in tears when the verdict was read.
The prosecution maintains Tata left the children unsupervised with oil heating on the stove while she went shopping at Target.
"I would suggest to you that you would expect more from someone who’s watching your dog," prosecutor Steve Baldassano told jurors during closing arguments Monday.
Baldassno said Tata tried to evade responsibility for the fire that also injured three children.
"Today is the day to hold her accountable," he said. "Find her guilty for the death of Elias Castillo, who will forever be frozen in time at the age of 15 months."
"It is what it is, and it’s not what it’s not," said DeGeurin during closing. "The prosecution can’t point to you and say, ‘You’re guilty,’ and that makes you guilty."
The defense tried to raise the possibility that the fire was caused by faulty wiring in a refrigerator, something the prosecution called a last ditch effort.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it was a tragic accident. Jessica Tata should have never left those children alone. It was wrong to do that," DeGeurin said.
Tata did not take the stand in her own defense.
Early in the investigation, a neighbor said Tata told firefighters that the fire started in the kitchen, while she was in the bathroom. It was later determined she wasn’t home at the time.
Tata fled the country to her family's native Nigeria a few days after the fire. She was later arrested and brought back to the U.S.
In all, Tata is charged with four counts of felony murder. It's not clear if prosecutors will try her in the other three cases.