Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the retrial of Quinton Tellis for the murder of Jessica Chambers. The horrific killing split a small Mississippi town. Prosecutors first attempted to put Tellis behind bars last October, but this ended in a mistrial because of a hung jury.
Here are 5 key things to know about this case.
1. The Crime: Chambers Was Burned Alive in Her Car
On the night of December 6, 2014, volunteer firefighters in the small town of Courtland, Mississippi got a call. They found 19-year-old Jessica Chambers badly injured after she was burned alive in her car.
She didn’t survive long. Burns covered almost her entire body, and the injuries took her life, but not before she apparently identified her attacker to the firefighters.
Asked who did this to her, she said “Erick” or “Derrick,” according to the first responders.
2. The Defendant: Quinton Tellis
That’s not the name of the defendant Quinton Tellis, but prosecutors insist he’s the killer. He had the motive, and the evidence put him at the scene, they said.
Authorities, including 17th Circuit Court District Attorney John Champion, said that they didn’t suspect him at first. In the docuseries Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers, he described Tellis as a believable at first. Meanwhile, any leads for “Eric” or “Derrick” lead to dead-ends.
When Tellis was indicted February 23, 2016, investigators said they got their man.
The defendant does carry a pretty length criminal history. He has five convictions on record for crimes like burglary, and DUI. Out in Louisiana, he also faces charges in the unrelated 2015 stabbing death of Meing-Chen “Mandy” Hsiao.
3. The Evidence: Motive and a Cell Phone Tower
At trial, Champion presented text messages that showed Tellis tried to have a sexual relationship with Chambers. He argued that the defendant suffocated the victim after being turned down again, believed he had killed her, and tried to get rid of the evidence through arson.
Tellis’ DNA was found on her car keys. Testimony established that they had known each other for about two weeks, and hung out that same day.
Cell tower evidence put him near the car at the time of the fire, Champion said.
The prosecutor also offered an explanation for why Chambers would’ve said another name, not Tellis. First responders had noted that she mispronounced her own name. Former Courtland volunteer firefighter Cole Haley testified that she said her name was “Tambers.”
Chambers suggested in closing arguments that the severe injures to her vocal cords could’ve explained why she identified an “Eric” or “Derrick.”
“What if she was trying to say, ’Tellis’?” he said.
4. The Defense: Chambers Named Another Man as Her Attacker
Tellis’ attorneys Darla Palmer and Alton Peterson brought up no witnesses in the first trial, but instead focused on cross-examination in trying to puncture the state’s case.
Palmer straight up dismissed Chambers’ assertion about Chambers mispronouncing Tellis’ name, and asserted that the victim was nonetheless coherent and consistent in her answers to firefighters.
The cell phone tower evidence, she said, didn’t put her client precisely at the scene of the fire.
“Eric is not on trial today,” Palmer said. “But ladies and gentlemen, he should be.”
Peterson attacked investigative methods, and argued that investigators weren’t thorough enough. They even failed to take a second look at a suspicious man by the scene of the fire, he argued.
“I believe that was a stone left unturned,” Peterson said.
5. The Second Trial
If the defense had their way, Champion wouldn’t even be at the retrial. Palmer filed prosecutorial misconduct claims last January, alleging that the district attorney tried to coach one of her other clients, a murder defendant, into testifying that Chambers’ nickname for Tellis was “Eric.” Champion insisted he didn’t believe the client’s story, and denied talking to the man about his unrelated case. A judge ruled for Champion in July, but Palmer filed an appeal in August.
Update – Sept. 24, 6:50 p.m.: Jury selection is over.
— Cathy Russon (@cathyrusson) September 24, 2018
[Image via Chambers Facebook support group]