Day care owner Jessica Tata found guilty of murder

On November 13, 2012, jurors convicted Jessica Tata of the most serious charge they could in the fatal fire -- felony murder
November 13, 2012 8:29:46 PM PST
After a bit of confusion in the courtroom Tuesday morning, jurors returned the toughest verdict they could against day care owner Jessica Tata -- guilty of murder. But their work is not done. Now they must decide how long Tata should be in jail.

"We, the jury, find the defendant, Jessica Tata, guilty of murder," the jury foreman read.

Tata showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

"She's never lost sight of the real victims, the real people who we have concern for are the families that lost their children," said defense attorney Mike DeGeurin.

Tata left seven children alone in her day care and went shopping, leaving a pot of oil burning on the stove, when her home day care burned down in February 2011. Four children died in the fire and Tata was just found guilty in the death of one of them ? 16-month-old Elias Castillo.

Jurors determined the stove was a deadly weapon in this case. That means Tata could serve a longer prison sentence, and the enhancement to the verdict also means it would be longer before she would eligible for parole.

Moments after the verdict was read, victims' family members left the courtroom in tears. They've all been hoping for this verdict since that fateful day.

Elias' aunt Nancy Villanueva said, "From the bottom of our hearts, we are thankful for today's verdict and we are happy."

The trial now moves to its punishment phase. Tata faces anywhere from five years to life in prison.

"A 10-year-old could put the case on now for the prosecution in punishment," suggested KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy. "This is very complex, though, for the defense."

Tata never testified in her own defense during the trial, but she has another chance to do so during her sentencing.

"I'm betting she doesn't testify," Androphy said. "Number one, I don't think she can withstand the cross-examination. If I'm the defense, I'm putting on character testimony, I'm putting on family members. I'm putting on people who know her and like her."

The punishment phase got underway with very dramatic testimony, involving Tata's childhood. The assistant principal from her high school testified that she was expelled from high school for setting two fires on the school campus. He described her on the stand as "evil."

Attorneys say the punishment phase of the trial could last two weeks.

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 US but has Nigerian citizenship.

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