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.
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This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (6/18-6/24)
25 photos Launch gallery
1. Me & the homie @jaleelwhite #RujohnFoundation Happy to be in Jamaica! Good times
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5. Good Morning. Early day in Detroit! Making press rounds for @thebossnetwork's Ladies That Lead Tour. Thank you @traycemadre and @colourbynumbr for my glam.
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6. POWER the best show on TV @djenvy, Queens we so big out here. #EFFENVODKA #FRIGO
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7. They said u lost a step, wasn't explosive as once was, the best days was in the real view, questioned your drive, your leadership, your commitment, you don't have killer instinct, going back home is the worst mistake in your career, he got the coach fired, players traded, won't work between him and Kyrie, Him and Kev won't work, love your teammates to much, there's no way he can deliver a championship in his hometown, etc etc etc.... But guess what THATS NONE OF MY BUSINESS #StriveForGreatness #ThisOneIsForTheLand #PutSomeRespeckOnMyName Hahahaha!!! Yes sir
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8. Oooooh weeee this man right here is responsible for at least three of our four babies!! #JOE ❤❤❤🎤 #rnb #king #voicelikebutter #ForPeetesSake
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9. Hanging with my @abcnetwork family! @abcunclebuck tonite y'all check us out ! @anthonyanderson @traceeellisross
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10. My broski ( @sayeedshahidi ) and I are on Top 5 Live on @go90 at 5 (which is super duper close)! Make sure to tune in :) #UncleBuck #Blackish
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11. Lights out💤 #GoodNight
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12. Late nights mornings
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13. Ran into the lovely talented @siedahgarrett on this brutiful favvuz deh!
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14. #halal #love #thedargans #kattwilliamsSHOW #mashallah when that Jennah piece HIT!! @sweetjennahcollection glasses by @baddieglamaccessories LIZ 😍 @dynamiteko top @dazzledmv and jeans @thevision414 and shoes: @louboutinworld
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15. Big Hair and Optical Illusions #OceanDrive #MiamiLiving #coverparty
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16. MAMA and THE SAVAGES ... ⚓️ #supportyourlocalgirlgang
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17. From the bottom of my ❤️, thank you new followers & old! & hello fellow night owls! #grateful #racheltrue #naturalhair #curlyhair #curlygirl #healthyhair
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18. I feel so grateful because I met these amazing young minds, visiting from Houston TX, during their college tour stop today at #usc.These students are ALL extraordinary and embody academic excellence so I'm humbled to have shared a few moments with them to applaud and celebrate their bright futures ahead! Thank you @EmergeFellows for inviting me to speak and blessing me with your love and attention this afternoon!
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19. Happy Fathers Day Pops. U taught me how to be a man. Lessons of love, hard work & gratefulness. Sorry the fishing didn't stick. LOL. I Love U!
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20. Sky Zone and Ice Cream! Best Fathers Day Ever!! Photo credit @mariahcarey
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21. Look what finally came in the mail 😎 #mtvmovieawards2016 💥+🌽! #straightouttacompton
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22. Claudia Jordan: ....
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23. 'Member that time I almost knocked a bajillion dollar camera off the car? Really? Yeah, me neither! #Greenleaf Episode 2 comin atcha!
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24. Full of love. #birthday #Cabo
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25. Oh hey! Look who just joined Snapchat
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