HOUSTON (AP) - A woman charged with murder after a fire at her Houston home day care killed four children betrayed the families who entrusted her with their kids' lives, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Jessica Tata, 24, faces up to life in prison if convicted of felony murder in the deaths of one of the children, 16-month-old Elias Castillo. Three children were also seriously injured in the 2011 fire, which began when oil in a frying pan on a stove top burner ignited. Tata had left the children home alone.
Family members of the children were in court Wednesday as prosecutor Steve Baldassano addressed jurors at the beginning of Tata's trial.
"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 in his opening statement.
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," DeGuerin 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 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 at a nearby Target, 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, such as abandoning a child, and that action led to the death.
Baldassano said Wednesday that prosecutors would present video of Tata at Target around the time of the blaze. An employee will testify about speaking with Tata and remembering that she mentioned leaving the stove top turned on at home, Baldassano said.
Even after remembering the stove top, Tata stopped at a Starbucks Coffee inside the store, he said.
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.
After the February 2011 fire, Tata fled to Nigeria but was captured by authorities after about a month. She was returned to the U.S. in March 2011 and has remained jailed since then.
She was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Tata's trial is expected to last about a month. The jury was chosen on Tuesday.
JUAN A. LOZANO
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