Retrial set for man accused in woman’s burning death

Mississippi jurors this week will begin the trial of Quinton Tellis, accused of setting 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on fire in her car in December 2014.

Posted: Sep 22, 2018 9:19 PM
Updated: Sep 23, 2018 12:43 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Was it Quinton or Eric?

That’s likely to be the choice again facing Mississippi jurors this week in the trial of Quinton Tellis, accused of setting 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on fire in her car in December 2014, only to see the dying woman stagger down a rural backroad and be found by firefighters.

The horrific circumstances surrounding the former high school cheerleader’s death focused national attention on the victim’s hometown of Courtland, a hamlet about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Memphis, Tennessee. In a trial last year, jurors couldn’t agree whether Tellis was guilty of capital murder. The 29-year-old Tellis faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

He faces another murder indictment in Louisiana, in the torture death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. No trial date has been set in that case.

The Mississippi case is freighted with racial overtones because Tellis is black, while Chambers was white.

Chambers had burns on more than 90 percent of her body and one of the firefighters who found her described her as looking like a “zombie.” The defense continues to focus on testimony by firefighters and other first responders who say they heard a badly injured Chambers tell them that “Eric” or maybe “Derek” had attacked her before she was whisked away to a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital where she died hours later.

“If we had one person saying she said ‘Quinton set me on fire,’ we wouldn’t be having a trial,” defense attorney Alton Peterson told The Associated Press. “But we had nine who said Eric did and we’re having a second trial.”

Witnesses for the government suggested in the first trial that Chambers, who had burns down her throat, was so injured and in shock that she may not have been able to properly pronounce words. A speech pathologist may be called in the second trial to emphasize that point.

Prosecutors point to cellphone records that show Chambers and Tellis were together twice on the day she was burned. The second time, prosecutors say Chambers picked up Tellis about two-and-a-half hours before she was found burned and they went to a fast food outlet.

Tellis originally told investigators he wasn’t with Chambers on the evening of Dec. 6, but two years later changed his story and admitted he was.

Citing statements Tellis made to investigators, Panola County District Attorney John Champion said Tellis and Chambers had sex in her car later that evening. Champion said he believes Tellis suffocated Chambers and thought he had killed her. The defense, though denies that Tellis and Chambers had sex.

The prosecution’s theory is likely to be much the same in the second trial.

“We’re going to stick to what we believe is our strongest case and we put that on last time,” Champion said.

But there’s one new wrinkle. Prosecutors have subpoenaed a woman named Sherry Flowers as a witness. Peterson said she’s expected to testify that she gave a man a ride the night of Chambers’ death. This could fill in a crucial gap linking Tellis to the crime scene. In the first trial, prosecutors had claimed Tellis traveled on foot from the place where he left Chambers to his sister’s house, got his sister’s car, collected a can of gasoline at his own house, and then returned to set the car and an unconscious Chambers on fire.

Defense attorneys, though, question whether Flowers can identify Tellis as the man she transported.

“She indicates she’s seen his face somewhere, but can’t remember where,” Peterson said.

Peterson also said the defense is likely to do more to challenge prosecution witnesses on cellphone locations and on whether Tellis’ DNA was found on Chambers keychain in a ditch between the crime scene and the sister’s house.

Jurors are scheduled to be selected Monday in the college town of Starkville and brought to the Panola County courthouse in Batesville for the trial. Jurors will be sequestered, and both sides expect the trial will run at least into the next weekend. Peterson said the second trial could be longer than the first and that the defense could call first responder witnesses that the prosecution doesn’t call, in order to drive home the Eric question.

“Our position remains the same,” Peterson said. “He didn’t commit this crime, someone else did, and she told them who did it. They just didn’t do a good job of finding him.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 320292

Reported Deaths: 7390
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22299271
Hinds20782424
Harrison18455317
Rankin13933282
Jackson13740249
Madison10276225
Lee10068176
Jones8475167
Forrest7845153
Lauderdale7263242
Lowndes6524150
Lamar636688
Lafayette6315121
Washington5427138
Bolivar4842133
Panola4671110
Oktibbeha466398
Pearl River4610148
Marshall4576105
Warren4440121
Pontotoc426173
Monroe4163136
Union415977
Neshoba4066180
Lincoln4009113
Hancock387687
Leflore3516125
Tate342586
Sunflower339491
Pike3374111
Alcorn327474
Scott320374
Yazoo314771
Adams308586
Itawamba305178
Copiah299966
Coahoma299084
Simpson298689
Tippah292468
Prentiss284461
Leake272474
Marion271480
Covington267283
Wayne264842
Grenada264087
George252451
Newton249064
Tishomingo232469
Winston230382
Jasper222148
Attala215173
Chickasaw210759
Holmes190574
Stone188833
Clay187954
Tallahatchie180041
Clarke178980
Calhoun174232
Yalobusha167940
Smith164134
Walthall135547
Greene131934
Lawrence131424
Montgomery128943
Noxubee128034
Perry127538
Amite126542
Carroll122330
Webster115132
Jefferson Davis108534
Tunica108127
Claiborne103130
Benton102325
Humphreys97533
Kemper96729
Franklin85023
Quitman82316
Choctaw79218
Wilkinson69632
Jefferson66328
Sharkey50917
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 549394

Reported Deaths: 11328
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson810851571
Mobile42180832
Madison35733524
Tuscaloosa26186460
Shelby25638255
Montgomery25103615
Baldwin21921314
Lee16301176
Calhoun14725329
Morgan14650286
Etowah14192364
Marshall12465230
Houston10798289
Elmore10302214
Limestone10191157
St. Clair10166251
Cullman9975201
Lauderdale9621250
DeKalb8978190
Talladega8467184
Walker7351281
Autauga7244113
Jackson6993113
Blount6957139
Colbert6418140
Coffee5650128
Dale4931116
Russell455241
Chilton4476116
Franklin432082
Covington4283123
Tallapoosa4137155
Escambia402380
Chambers3731124
Dallas3609158
Clarke353361
Marion3264107
Pike314878
Lawrence3135100
Winston283672
Bibb268664
Geneva258782
Marengo250566
Pickens237062
Barbour234460
Hale227078
Butler225071
Fayette219763
Henry194844
Randolph187744
Cherokee187545
Monroe181041
Washington170639
Macon163051
Clay160159
Crenshaw156157
Cleburne153744
Lamar147237
Lowndes142154
Wilcox126830
Bullock124642
Conecuh113830
Coosa112129
Perry108826
Sumter106032
Greene93734
Choctaw62125
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