Defense could begin in deadly day care fire trial

Attorneys for a Texas woman facing a murder charge after a fire at her home day care killed four children and injured three other kids could begin presenting their case to jurors.

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2012 file photo, Jessica Tata, accused in the deaths of four children at her west Houston daycare, stands at the conclusion of opening statements at the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, in Houston. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Mayra Beltran, File)

HOUSTON (AP) — Attorneys for a Texas woman facing a murder charge after a fire at her home day care killed four children and injured three other kids could begin presenting their case to jurors.

However, Jessica Tata's defense team declined to say how many witnesses, if any, they planned to call Tuesday to testify in a Houston courtroom.

Prosecutors rested their case against Tata on Monday after calling about 30 witnesses over nearly two weeks.

Investigators allege that Tata had left the seven children she was caring for alone at her home to go shopping at a nearby Target store when oil in a pan ignited atop a stovetop burner that had been left on. The children in the February 2011 fire ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old.

Tata's attorneys insist she never intended to harm the children and that she tried to save them from the fire.

Tata, 24, is charged with four counts of felony murder but is currently being tried only in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.

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 top burner on while the kids were at the day care.

Tata went through an orientation class in which she was told of her responsibilities as a child care provider, according to Susan Lahmeyer, a former district director of licensing with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees day care facilities.

"The cardinal rule in child care is supervision of children," said Lahmeyer, one of the prosecution's last witnesses.

DeGeurin, Tata's attorney, has suggested to jurors that the deadly blaze could have been sparked by a malfunctioning stove.

Neighbors testified about hearing the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to reach them during the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified. Several 911 calls that were made on the day of the fire, including one by Tata, were played for jurors. Tata burst into tears when her call — in which some of the children can be heard crying in the background — was played.

Along with the murder counts, Tata was indicted on three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.


Follow Juan A. Lozano at
Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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