HOUSTON – Day care provider Jessica Tata was arraigned Wednesday on four counts of felony murder. She pleaded not guilty.
Tata is accused of leaving seven children unattended at a west Houston home day care facility on February 24 while she went shopping. Investigators say a pot of oil left on a stove caught fire while she was gone, and the kids were trapped inside.
Four of the children – 18-month-old Elias Castillo, 3-year-old Shomari Dickerson, 20-month-old Elizabeth Kajoh and 20-month-old Kendyll Stradford—died, and three others were injured.
Tata is also charged with injury to a child, child endangerment and child abandonment.
Her attorney, Mike DeGuerin, said the judge on Wednesday denied his request to try all of the cases at the same time.
DeGuerin said, as of now, the plan is to try one case in January, with the rest of the cases following.
"It’s a tremendous amount of time that will be devoted to that. A trial itself could be a month, so it could play out to be nine months to a year in trial. And that could be tough. I don’t know how anyone can afford that kind of prosecution," DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin said his client was tearful in the courtroom and is overwhelmed by the charges against her.
"She doesn’t have anything to wipe her face with, so I just have her turn toward me and tears come down. But she’s quiet and respectful and doesn’t say anything," DeGuerin said. "She’s a relatively young lady. She’s 23, and this is all kind of astounding to her. Just to hear a charge that takes five minutes to read is overwhelming. I started to time it, it took almost 15 minutes just to read the accusations."
DeGuerin has said that the DA’s office went too far with the felony murder charges.
"The bottom line is, this is an unnecessary stretch of the law to charge Jessica Tata with felony murder," DeGuerin said when the indictment was handed down in June. "The grand jury, in its historic function, is supposed to stand between an overzealous prosecution and the citizens."
Tata has been held in the Harris County Jail on $1 million bond since she was returned to Houston from Nigeria on March 21. She caught a flight to the African nation two days after the fire, as investigators scrambled to convince prosecutors to file charges.
The judge has since refused the defense’s requests to reduce her bond.
In a jailhouse interview in May, Tata said she was struggling to express her remorse to the victims’ families.
"Sorry is not enough," Tata said. "You can only say sorry so many times."
Family members of the victims have said they hope the case spurs changes in how the state regulates day cares and the people who run them.
"Although it’s not going to bring all the children back it’s definitely going to set a new standard for day cares," Tiffany Dickerson, the mother of a fire victim and survivor, said. "Anyone who’s following the same patterns as her, anyone that’s sneaking off for moments at a time and leaving children unattended, will know that this is a wake-up call that this is not OK and there are consequences for these actions."
Dickerson has filed a lawsuit against Tata, her parents and the state, claiming negligence.