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Deliberations are ongoing in the Jessica Chambers murder retrial.
Prosecutors say Quinton Verdell Tellis fatally set the 19-year-old woman on fire December 6, 2014, and left her to die on the side of a rural road in Courtland, Mississippi.
In closing arguments Sunday, the state argued that cell phone tower evidence put Tellis and Chambers together. The defendant’s answers to investigators changed after they confronted him with evidence.
The defense argued that investigators were aggressive, hounding defense witnesses like Latoya Taylor, who testified that authorities tried to pick up her son Eric from school. Tellis’ attorneys reemphasized the key detail that first responders reported hearing Chambers blame an “Eric” for the fire.
In his rebuttal to the defense, 17th Circuit District Attorney John Champion said that the name might have spread among first responders after one of them mistakenly believed to have heard it. He construed this as a good-natured mistake.
“That’s fine,” Champion said. “These are good people. I know a lot of them.”
As in the last trial, prosecutors have been trying to highlight Tellis’ shifting answers to investigators. For example, he previously told them that he only saw Jessica in the morning of December 6, 2014, but later said he saw her at a Taco Bell while he was with Michael “Big Mike” Sanford. Sanford’s testimony undermined that story. He said he was over in Nashville, Tennessee for a football game.
They also defended against Peterson’s earlier criticism. They brought up Thelma Taylor on Friday. Taylor testified that her husband was the suspicious man said to be near the scene. Taylor said she sent him over there to check out the area after she heard about a helicopter near her daughter’s residence and became curious.
The defense, meanwhile, was trying to highlight first responder reports that Chambers named an “Eric” as her assailant. Palmer even butted heads with state’s witness Dr. William Hickerson, who insisted that Jessica’s burns would’ve rendered her incapable of talking.
“My momma didn’t raise no liar,” Hickerson said during cross-examination.
This is Tellis’ second trial for Chamers’ murder. Last time, jurors couldn’t make a decision about Tellis’ guilt. The jury deadlocked, and Judge Gerald Chatham declared a mistrial. Another set of 12 people will soon deliberate. Will they come down with a clear, unanimous verdict, or will another hung jury deferred the case yet again?
You can check out a detailed article on last year’s closing arguments here, but these were some key points.
First, the prosecution’s argument. Tellis suffocated Chambers after she turned him down for sex, said Champion. Believing she was dead, he took her body and her car to the side of a rural road, doused her and the vehicle with gasoline, and set a fire, the state argued. First responders found her burnt on most of her body. Champion said cell phone tower evidence from the time of the crime put Tellis in the same area as Chambers. Confronted by that evidence, Tellis walked back his initial claim that he didn’t see her that evening.
Defense lawyer Darla Palmer said that first responders repeatedly said that Chambers claimed an “Eric” did this to her. Also, cell phone tower evidence, she said, wasn’t reliable enough to pinpoint Tellis’ location during the crime. Co-counsel Alton Peterson argued that investigators just weren’t thorough enough in their investigation, and failed to track down all alternative leads. For example, investigators failed to follow up on a suspicious man seen at the scene of the fire.
Champion downplayed the “Eric” detail. He said that Chambers’ vocal cords were so burnt that she was mispronouncing her words, and may have been trying to say “Tellis.”
Note: Updated with information from closing arguments.
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