HOUSTON (AP) — 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, which is expected to begin at 1 p.m. CST Tuesday. Prosecutors did not say after the verdict was read whether they planned to seek a life sentence.
Tata had no visible reaction as the 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's aunts. "We're happy."
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he accepted the jury's verdict and would now focus on sentencing.
"She's never lost sight of the real victims," DeGeurin said. "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 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 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 could also have found Tata guilty of four lesser counts. There was brief confusion in court Tuesday when the jury indicated it had reached a verdict. But State District Judge Marc Brown sent them back because they had chosen multiple counts instead of one.