HOUSTON (AP) — The fire that killed four children at a Houston woman's home day care was an accident, not an act of murder, her attorney said during Monday's closing arguments.
Jessica Tata is on trial for one count of felony murder in the death of 16-month-old toddler Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted on that charge, though jurors can find her guilty on several lesser counts.
Prosecutors allege that Jessica Tata had hot oil cooking on a stove at her day care when she left the children alone to shop at a nearby Target store in February 2011. The resulting fire also injured three children.
But Mike DeGeurin, one of Tata's attorneys, said the deadly fire was a "tragic accident" and questioned whether the stove was on when she left. Her attorneys have argued a faulty switch on a refrigerator could have sparked the fire.
"Jessica Tata should have never left those children alone," DeGeurin said. "She should never have left. She never intended to harm those children. What it's not is murder."
DeGeurin also questioned testimony from a former Target manager who said he remembered Tata said she had left the stove burner on and didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave the store. DeGeurin said Tata or the manager might have misremembered what she said.
"Who among us has not self-doubted yourself in a situation like that?" he said.
Tata, 24, is charged with four total counts of felony murder, and was also indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.
Jurors at this trial can convict Tata of several, less serious charges: recklessly causing serious bodily injury to a child, abandoning a child, endangering a child and causing serious bodily injury to a child by criminal negligence.
The prosecution will also present its closing arguments Monday.
Convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on could be important for prosecutors in getting a felony murder conviction. Prosecutors do not need to show that Tata intended to harm the children, only that the deaths occurred because her actions put them in danger.
Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony that led to the death.
During the two-week trial, prosecutors presented about 30 witnesses, including neighbors who testified about hearing the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to rescue them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured testified that they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.
Tata had initially told investigators she was at home when the fire began, but video surveillance played for jurors showed Tata was at Target when the fire began.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.