Appeals for leniency failed to move a Texas judge who delivered a harsh sentence of 80 years behind bars for Nigerian-American Jessica Tata, convicted in the death of a child killed in a fire at her home day care in Houston, Texas.
Eight witnesses testified for Tata in the punishment phase of the trial on Friday. Twenty two witnesses testified for the prosecution, alleging that she ran an unclean facility where dirty diapers and vomit were strewn on the floor. The deceased child, 16-month-old Elias Castillo, succumbed to a fire ignited when Tata went shopping and left a pan of oil cooking on the stove.
The incident, which took place in February 2011, also left three other children seriously injured.
During the trial which began Oct. 24, surveillance video was presented that showed her shopping at Target just before the fire occurred. A former Target manager told jurors that Tata did not seem to be in a hurry even after realizing she had left the stove top burner on while the kids were at the day care.
Neighbors testified they heard the children crying during their unsuccessful attempts to rescue them from the blaze. Parents of the children who died or were injured told jurors they had trusted Tata, believing she was qualified.
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.
Among those testifying at the trial was Jessica’s sister Jennifer who defended her sibling but acknowledged she was “hard to handle” as a teenager and didn’t get along with their parents.
Tata fled to Nigeria after the fire but was captured there after about a month and returned to the U.S. in March 2011. She has remained jailed since then. Tata was born in the U.S. but has Nigerian citizenship.
Her brother, Ronald Tata, told jurors it was his idea for his sister to go to Nigeria to get advice from their father, who lived there. He said their mother didn't want his sister to go because "it would look bad."
Ronald Tata said his sister should be held accountable for what she did, but he also asked the jury for mercy. "I believe in justice and not vengeance," he said.
Tata also faces three additional felony murder counts and other charges in relation to the other children killed and injured in the fire.