Texas Home Day Care Owner Goes on Trial for Felony Murder After Four Children Died in Fire

A high profile case in Texas explores the circumstances under which negligence can become murder.

Jessica Tata is accused of being responsible for a fire at a home day care in Houston that killed four children and injured three others.

Prosecutors allege that Tata left hot oil cooking on a stove at her home day care when she left the children alone to go shopping at a nearby Target store.

The 24-year-old is charged with four counts of felony murder. She is currently being tried in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo.

It’s a harrowing case but it’s important that the jury returns a verdict based on the criminal law rather than the obvious emotions this case stirs up. Tata faces up to life in prison if she is convicted.

This week the jurors heard claims from Tata’s defense attorney that a refrigerator, not a stove, might be to blame for causing a fire at the daycare.

Associated Press reported that Richard Bonyata, an electrical engineer who was testifying for Tata, told jurors he believed a switch that would have been used to turn on the burner in question was switched off at the time of the blaze.

It’s an important distinction because there’s a clear risk of a fire if a burner is left on. It’s less obvious if the cause of the fire was a refrigerator.

Tata’s defense attorneys have told jurors it was not her intention to harm the children, aged from 16 months to 3 years old, and that the fatal fire in February 2011 was not caused by the actions of their client.

Bonyata pointed to heavy damage to the refrigerator’s doors, and damage around the refrigerator to back up his opinion that it was the cause of the fire.

“There’s evidence it certainly can’t be ruled out,” he said, according to AP.

David Reiter, a forensic electrical engineer who testified for the prosecution, said he determined one of the burners had been on at the time of the fire.

The expert evidence may be crucial to this case because convincing jurors that Tata was responsible for leaving the burner on before allegedly leaving the children home alone could be vital for prosecutors in obtaining a felony murder conviction.

But prosecutors do not need to show intent to harm the children. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if they committed a felony that led to the death.

Tata has also been indicted on charges of reckless injury to a child and three counts of abandoning a child.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin after prosecutors call at least one witness to address the defense expert, an engineering expert who testified last week.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.