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Texas daycare owner gets 80 years for fire death of toddler

By Deborah Quinn Hensel

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The owner of a Houston daycare center where four toddlers died in a fire that started after she left the children unattended to go shopping was sentenced on Tuesday to 80 years in prison for a felony murder conviction in one of the deaths.

Jessica Tata, 24, will not be eligible for parole for 30 years under the sentence imposed by the jury. Convicted for the death of 16-month-old Elias Castillo in the February 2011 fire, she was also fined $10,000.

Jurors found Tata guilty on November 13 and could have sentenced her to life in prison. Prosecutors have not said whether Tata will face trial in the other deaths.

Three-year-old Shomari Dickerson, and Elizabeth Kajoh and Kendyll Stradford, both 20 months old, also died in the fire at the home daycare center. Several other children were injured.

Prosecutors presented evidence that a pot of hot oil left on a burner caught on fire while Tata was away, and a video showing her at a Target store shortly before the fire broke out.

"Those are real, real babies," prosecutor Connie Spence told jurors on Monday. "What's a child's life worth?"

Former friends and school administrators testified during the sentencing that Tata was a violent, vengeful person and had deliberately set two fires in the bathroom of her high school as a juvenile. Tata did not testify at the sentencing.

Jurors deliberated eight hours before returning the sentence, which was read by Judge Marc Brown from the 180th District Criminal Court in Harris County.

During the trial, Tata's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said the fire was accidental and suggested it could have been caused by faulty wiring.

Tata, the U.S.-born daughter of Nigerian citizens, fled the country after the fire, but was captured in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in March 2011 and extradited to Texas. She has been held without bond in the Harris County Jail.

(Editing by David Bailey and Mohammad Zargham)

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