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Friends: Texas day care owner cared about children

Associated Press Modified: November 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm •  Published: November 16, 2012

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.

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