A Texas woman was sentenced to 80 years on Tuesday for her felony murder conviction in the death of one of four children killed in a fire at her home daycare in Houston, the state’s capital.
Jessica Tata, 24, was convicted last week in connection with the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. Authorities say Elias was one of seven children whom Tata left unsupervised at her home while she went to a nearby Target store.
Prosecutors say she left a pan of oil cooking on a stovetop burner and that this ignited the blaze in February last year while she was out shopping. Three other children were seriously injured.
“Nobody wins in this situation,” Elias’ great-grandmother, Patty Sparks, said after the sentencing. “My heart goes out to the Tata family and those precious mothers and fathers who lost their babies.”
Tata, who was only a few years removed from her teens when she started her daycare, worked alone most of the time.
The same jury that decided her sentence had convicted Tata last week of one count of felony murder. The jury could have sentenced her to between five years and life in prison. Prosecutors had sought a life sentence, while defense attorneys asked only that jurors not give her an excessive sentence.
She will have to serve 30 years of her sentence before she is eligible for parole. Tata was also ordered to pay a US$10,000 fine.
Jurors deliberated her punishment for seven hours over two days. The former daycare owner had no visible reaction after the sentence was announced.
Tata’s attorneys said she was a good person who loved children, but had made a terrible mistake.
Prosecutors argued she was an irresponsible daycare owner who had doomed the children when she left them alone. They said Tata had repeatedly left kids she was responsible for unsupervised and it was only a matter of time before her actions led to tragedy.
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he still believes Tata should not have been tried for murder because the deaths were an accident.
Tata’s family and friends, who declined to comment after the sentence was announced, had testified she had changed since her troubled adolescence, when she had pleaded guilty to arson for starting two fires at her high school on the same day.
Defense attorneys had presented expert testimony to argue that a faulty stove or refrigerator may have sparked the blaze.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said that while he has sympathy for Tata’s family, she had nobody to blame but herself.
One of the surviving children, Makayla Dickerson, stood next to Baldassano as he spoke. Makayla, whose three-year-old brother Shomari died in the fire, showed reporters scars the fire left on her right forearm.
Tata’s attorneys said she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years, and whom Tata had referred to as “her babies.” However, prosecutors did not need to show she intended to harm them, only that the deaths occurred because she put them in danger by leaving them alone. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if they committed an underlying felony which led to the death.
Jurors declined to speak with reporters after the sentence was announced.
Tata fled to Nigeria after the fire, but was captured after about a month, returned to the US in March last year and has remained jailed since. She was born in the US, but has Nigerian citizenship.
Tata still faces three counts of felony murder over the other children who died, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child. Baldassano said prosecutors planned to pursue trials on the remaining felony murder charges.