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Houston day-care operator gets 80 years in child's fire death

11/20/2012 11:19 PM

11/20/2012 11:19 PM

HOUSTON -- The 24-year-old operator of a home child-care business who left seven children unattended while she went shopping was sentenced Tuesday to 80 years in prison for the death of one child in a fire.

Jessica Tata will have to serve 30 years of her sentence before she is eligible for parole, attorneys said. Tata also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Four children died and three were injured after fire erupted on Feb. 24, 2011. Investigators traced the fire to a pot of oil left on a hot stove burner.

Tata was charged with four counts of felony murder, three counts of abandoning a child and two counts of reckless injury to a child.

She was tried first in the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo and was convicted last week.

The punishment range on a murder charge is five years to life in prison. Prosecutors had sought a life sentence; defense attorneys asked only that jurors not give her an excessive sentence.

Harris County prosecutor Steve Baldassano said prosecutors planned to pursue trials on the remaining felony murder charges.

Jurors deliberated her punishment for seven hours over two days.

Prosecutors argued that she was an irresponsible day-care owner who had doomed the children when she left them alone. They said Tata had repeatedly left children unsupervised, and it was only a matter of time before her actions led to tragedy.

Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he still believes Tata should not have been charged with murder because the deaths were an accident.

"The sentence is not going to fix things. It's not going to make anybody feel better later on. But the jury has spoken. That's their sentence," DeGeurin said.

Baldassano said Tata had nobody to blame but herself.

"She was being paid to watch these children. She knew better," Baldassano said.

"It's not the stove. It's not the refrigerator. It's not any parents' fault. It's nobody's fault but her own."

After the sentence was announced, Patty Sparks, Elias' great-grandmother said: "Nobody wins in this situation. My heart goes out to the Tata family and those precious mothers and fathers who lost their babies."

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