HOUSTON (AP) — Deliberations began Monday afternoon in the felony murder trial of a Houston woman who was out shopping while a fire broke out at her home day care, a blaze that killed four of seven unsupervised children.
The jury got the case after the morning's closing arguments. The attorney for Jessica Tata said the deadly blaze was a "tragic accident," not a murder, and might have been started by a malfunctioning refrigerator.
Prosecutors called the claim about the refrigerator "crazy." They alleged Tata had left hot oil on a stove when she left the children alone to shop at a nearby Target store in February 2011. The resulting fire also injured three children.
Tata, 24, is charged with four counts of felony murder but is currently being tried on only one of the counts: for the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo. She faces up to life in prison if convicted of felony murder, though jurors can find her guilty on several lesser counts.
Jurors deliberated for about 4 ½ hours before ending their work. They were set to resume deliberating Tuesday. The jury is being sequestered during their deliberations.
Tata's attorney presented his closing argument first. Prosecutors said they chose to follow the defense so they could have all of their time in one block.
Prosecutor Steve Baldassano said Tata failed in her duty to protect the children and is now trying to avoid responsibility for what she did. As Baldassano told jurors Tata had broken her promises to keep the children safe, he pointed to the parents of the dead or injured children who were in the courtroom.
"They are trying to blame the stove, the refrigerator. She's the only person to blame. It's 100 percent her fault," he said.
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin acknowledged the former day care owner left the children alone.
"She should never have left. It was a terrible accident ... What it's not is murder," he said.
DeGeurin questioned whether the stove was on when Tata left and suggested that burn patterns and other evidence points to the refrigerator as a possible cause of the blaze.
DeGeurin also questioned testimony from a former Target manager who said he remembered Tata saying she had left the stove burner on and didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave the store. DeGeurin said Tata or the manager might have misremembered.
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