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November 13, 2012

Texas jury has broad sentencing discretion after felony murder conviction for day care fire

No doubt because jury sentencing in non-capital cases remains a relative rarity, one does not often hear complaints about the sentencing discretion sometimes possessed by some sentencing juries in some states.  But, as reported in this local article headlined "Jurors convict Jessica Tata of murder in day care fire," a notable verdict today in a notable felony murder case now gives a Texas jury notably broad sentencing discretion.  Here are the details:

Day care operator Jessica Tata stood emotionless Tuesday as a judge announced she was responsible for the deaths of four toddlers last year, but members of the children's families slumped in their seats in the courtroom gallery, softly sobbing.

Four weeks before, the mothers and fathers of the dead and injured children testified they trusted Tata and felt betrayed. On Tuesday, they praised a jury's decision to convict her of felony murder....

Tuesday's verdict, after six hours of deliberations, was a disappointment to Tata and her defense team but not a surprise.  "The jury has spoken. We accept their verdict and move on to the next phase of the trial," said Mike DeGeurin, Tata's lawyer....

Prosecutors said a pot of oil that Tata left on a hot burner started the fire after she left the children alone to go shopping.  Assistant Harris County District Attorney Steve Baldassano noted that arson investigators found a package of chicken nuggets near the stove.

DeGeurin told jurors in closing arguments Monday that the stove was actually off and a recently repaired refrigerator started the fire because a safety switch had been removed.

After the verdict, the trial moved to the punishment phase.  Prosecutors, who will try to convince the jury that Tata should be sentenced to life in prison, said she set two fires at Taylor High School in Katy as a freshman in retaliation for being disciplined....

DeGeurin is expected to call Tata's mother, sister and brother during the punishment phase, which could last two more weeks.

The jury will have a wide range of punishment, from five years to life in prison, after convicting her of felony murder, a charge that means Tata committed a felony that resulted in a death. The jurors did not have to decide which felony, only that she was guilty of murder.

November 13, 2012 at 11:19 PM | Permalink

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Until recently, the jury could theoretically have also given her probation. The wide discretion afforded Texas juries is not particular to this case. All first degree felonies (sans enhancement) in Texas are 5-99 or life, many are eligible for probation and deferred adjudication, and the defendant can pick (except in capital cases) whether a judge or jury decides.

Of course, since most cases never go to trial, in practice the main function of such wide discretion is to give prosecutors the biggest possible hammer and bargaining leeway in plea negotiations.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 14, 2012 8:04:28 AM

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