HOUSTON (AP) — Two 7-year-old girls formerly cared for by a Texas woman convicted of murder after a fire at her home day care killed four children told jurors Thursday that on separate occasions the woman left several babies unattended.
Prosecutors rested Thursday after presenting a total of 22 witnesses in the sentencing phase of Jessica Tata’s murder trial.
Tata, who was convicted of felony murder for the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo, faces up to life in prison. The defense was set to begin presenting its witnesses on Friday.
Witnesses said Tata ran an unclean facility where dirty diapers and vomit were strewn on the floor. Castillo’s mother also told jurors about holding her son after he died in a hospital.
Prosecutors said the February 2011 fire that killed Elias started after Tata 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.
One of the 7-year-old girls, Kiyanna Richardson, whose brother Shomari died in the fire and whose sister Makayla was seriously injured, testified Tata left her alone in the home with several babies while Tata went somewhere.
Kiyanna said when she was alone in the house, she helped out with the babies, giving them their pacifiers or bottles “so they don’t cry.” Kiyanna, who was not in the day care when the fire happened, did not say when this incident happened.
Brighten Long, who was enrolled with her brother at Tata’s day care, told jurors Tata once took her and several other children to eat at a McDonald’s but left some babies alone in her home. Prosecutors said this happened in July or August 2010.
“Did she leave the babies by themselves in the house when you went to McDonald’s?” prosecutor Connie Spence asked the girl.
“Yes,” said Brighten, who held a doll in her lap as she sat on the witness stand.
Brighten said Tata and the children brought the food back to the day care and “the babies were still in the cribs” when they returned. She did not say how many babies were left alone.
Brighten’s mother, Holly Long, told jurors that after her daughter told her what happened, she pulled the girl and her brother out of Tata’s day care. The siblings were only in Tata’s care for two to three weeks, Long said.
Sava Chantea, a neighbor who had considered using Tata’s day care, told jurors when he went to visit the facility in July 2010, he opened its front door and found 12 children apparently alone.
There were “a bunch of little bitty kids all over … They were walking around and crawling,” said Chantea, who added that the home smelled of urine.
Martha Parra, who worked briefly for Tata in 2010, told jurors Tata would leave her alone for hours at a time with up to 12 children. Parra recalled one time when Tata drove her and the kids in the day care’s van without putting the kids in car seats and dropped them off at a Baskin-Robbins for nearly three hours while Tata went to fix a flat tire on the van.
Parra said when she would arrive in the morning, “the house wasn’t clean. The kitchen was with dirty dishes. There were diapers on the floor, throw up under the playpen.”
Keshia Brown, 21, Elias’ mother, recalled for jurors seeing her son in the hospital after the fire just shortly before he died, holding his hand and telling him “everything would be okay.”
“To me he wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t going to let him die,” Brown, who was the last prosecution witness, said as she cried. At least seven jurors could be seen crying during her testimony.
Alfredo Galvan, a former investigator with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told jurors earlier Thursday he investigated Tata, who had received food stamps from December 2007 to February 2011, and determined she had committed welfare fraud.
Tata underreported her income and wrongly received nearly $4,000 in benefits, Galvan said. She faces a theft charge in that case.
She also faces three additional felony murder and other charges in relation to the other children killed and injured in the fire.
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