HOUSTON (AP) — During often tearful testimony, the mothers of four children who died in a 2011 home day care fire in Houston recounted for jurors on Wednesday the despair and grief they felt in the wake of the deadly blaze.
The parents testified during the first day of the felony murder trial of former day care owner Jessica Tata. She is facing up to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors say Tata, 24, put the children in harm’s way by leaving them alone and going shopping. While she was at a nearby Target, a fire broke out in the kitchen when oil in a frying pan on a stovetop burner ignited. Three children were also seriously injured in the February 2011 blaze.
Tata’s attorneys say she didn’t intend to hurt the children.
“It’s heartbreaking. She’s a baby. She didn’t know,” said Kenya Stradford, whose 20-month-old daughter Kendyll died in the blaze.
The mothers told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing their children were safe with her.
Keshia Brown, whose 16-month-old son Elias Castillo died in the fire, testified she was reassured because of the day care’s Christian learning environment.
“She seemed like a nice person, knew what she was doing,” said Brown, 21.
Tata was indicted on nine charges, including four counts of felony murder. She is being tried on one of the murder counts, for Elias’ death.
Tata showed no emotion most of the day, but wiped away tears during testimony from Betty Ukera, whose 20-month-old daughter Elizabeth died in the fire. Ukera and Tata had met in church in 2007 and were friends.
Ukera cried when she told jurors about the last time she saw her daughter alive — when dropping her off at the day care.
“They walked away from my car. (Elizabeth) turned, waved at me. She would walk a little bit and wave at me,” Ukera said.
Tiffany Dickerson, 26 — whose 3-year-old son Shomari died and 2-year-old daughter Makayla was seriously injured — told jurors she “collapsed to the floor” after learning of the fire. Her oldest daughter, then 5-year-old Kiyanna, was at school during the blaze.
During opening statements, prosecutor Steve Baldassano told jurors Tata had betrayed the trust the children’s families had given her.
“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.
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’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 initially told authorities she was in the home’s bathroom when the fire happened. DeGeurin, Tata’s attorney, attributed her lie to immaturity.
During a break in testimony, one of Elias Castillo’s aunts said she doesn’t believe it matters if Tata claims she didn’t intend to hurt the children.
“She did what she did. She abandoned the kids. End of story,” Vivian Sanchez said. “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 prosecutors would present video of Tata at Target. He also said prosecutors would present evidence showing Tata had left the children home alone earlier that day to go to Wal-Mart.
After the fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured after about a month, returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed. She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Tata’s trial is expected to last about a month. Testimony was to resume Thursday.
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