HOUSTON—Former high school classmates, administrators and other character witnesses continued to take the stand Wednesday in the punishment phase of the Jessica Tata trial. Jurors found Tata guilty of felony murder for the west Houston day care fire that killed four children.
Tata was standing and barely showing any emotion Tuesday afternoon when Judge Marc Brown read the jury’s verdict. She turned away from jurors as they were polled individually about the verdict.
It was unanimous. Jurors shared the sentiment the grieving victims’ families felt all along. Tata was solely responsible for the deaths of the children when she made the decision to leave them unsupervised, while a pan of oil was burning was on the stove, and went shopping at Target.
A fire ignited in the kitchen and smoke and flames spread quickly throughout the house, leaving the seven small children defenseless. Only three survived.
“She’s never lost sight of the real victims,” said defense attorney Mike DeGeurin. “The real people to have concern for are the families that lost the children. She hasn’t forgotten that.”
The families of Elias Castillo, Elizabeth Kojah, Kendyll Stradford and Shomari Dickerson will never forget the day their babies were trapped inside the burning day care in February 2011.
Many who knew Tata during her younger days will also never forget how she once was. One by one, they took the stand to talk about her troubled past and her previous incidents involving fires.
“She was very mean, always bullying students, throwing things on them and yelling at them,” a former high school classmate from the Katy Independent School District testified. “I was her friend because I was scared of her and didn’t want her to do anything to me.”
On Tuesday, a former administrator from Katy ISD told jurors Tata was suspended and ultimately expelled from the ninth grade for her vulgar behavior and for setting two fires in a school bathroom. When asked for his impressions of her, he stated he felt she was a bad and evil person.
The state is expected to call 20 witnesses in all during the punishment phase of the trial.