HOUSTON (AP) — Friends and family of a Texas woman convicted of murder after a fire at her home day care killed four children who had been left alone testified Friday that she was a good person who loved kids and would never intentionally harm them.
Jessica Tata's attorneys presented all eight of their witnesses in the punishment phase of the trial on Friday before resting their case. Tata did not testify.
The jury was expected to begin deliberating Tata's sentence after closing arguments on Monday. Tata, who was convicted on Tuesday of felony murder in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo, faces up to life in prison.
Defense attorneys tried to counter prosecutors' claims that Tata was an irresponsible day care owner who left the children she was caring for alone on multiple occasions and who ran an unclean facility where dirty diapers and vomit were strewn on the floor.
In all, 22 witnesses testified for prosecutors during the punishment phase, which also detailed Tata's arrest as a 14-year-old after she started two fires on the same day in 2002 at her suburban Houston high school. She later pleaded guilty in juvenile court to arson.
Prosecutors said the February 2011 fire that killed Elias started after Tata, 24, left a group of children alone with a pan of oil on a hot stove while she went shopping. Along with the four children who died, three were injured.
Tata's attorneys say she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years old, and that she tried to save them.
"She's very loving, very caring, passionate about what she did," said a tearful Eeba Karanwi, who has known Tata since the fourth or fifth grade.
Karanwi told jurors about working with Tata at their church's nursery and taking care of children during Sunday church services. She also described how Tata taught children at her day care the alphabet and how to color.
Eudora Walcott, a nurse whose grandson Isaac had been enrolled at Tata's day care, testified Isaac loved going with Tata and that she taught him his numbers and how to eat off his own plate and not grab other people's food. Walcott said she would sometimes help Tata at the day care and she always found the facility to be clean and orderly.
"What type of person is Jessica Tata?" defense attorney Mike DeGeurin asked.
"The person that I know was always there for the kids," Walcott said.
Karanwi and Walcott told jurors that although they don't condone Tata leaving the children alone before the deadly blaze began, they still believe she is a good person.
Tata's sister, Jennifer Tata, testified her sibling was distraught right after the fire.
"She felt really, really bad about what had happened to the kids," she said.
But when questioned by prosecutor Steve Baldassano, Jennifer Tata told jurors her sister was "hard to handle" as a teenager and didn't get along with their parents. She testified their parents, particularly their mother, didn't want Jessica to open the day care without going to college first.
"Is it safe to say she knew full well that leaving kids alone is just dangerous?" Baldassano asked Jennifer Tata, who is a nurse.
"Yes sir," she replied.
Tata fled to Nigeria after the fire 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.
Her brother, Ronald Tata, told jurors it was his idea for his sister to go to Nigeria to get advice from their father, who lived there. He said their mother didn't want his sister to go because "it would look bad."
Ronald Tata said his sister should be held accountable for what she did, but he also asked the jury for mercy.
"I believe in justice and not vengeance," he said.
Tata also faces three additional felony murder counts and other charges in relation to the other children killed and injured in the fire.
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