Deliberations began Sunday afternoon in the Jessica Chambers murder trial. Jurors are expected to decide whether Quinton Verdell Tellis set her and her car on fire on December 6, 2014.
Here’s what you need to know about closing arguments.
John Champion, District of Attorney at the 17th Circuit Court, told jurors that there’s no evidence that Tellis intended to kill Jessica that day. The charge is capital murder. That means someone died in the commission of another crime–in this case, third-degree arson. If convicted, Tellis faces life in prison.
“Quinton Tellis went down to the crime scene, and lit this child on fire,” said Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale. He told the jurors that cell phone tower evidence placed Tellis with Jessica around the time of the murder, that the defendant changed his answers during interviews, and that DNA testing of Chambers’ keys couldn’t exclude Tellis.
“Ladies and gentlemen, use your common sense,” defense lawyer Darla Palmer said about Tellis’ answers to investigators. Before his arrest in Jessica’s murder, he spent hours and days speaking to them about the case, without his attorney, asking various questions, she said.
Palmer argued that investigators were overzealous. Defense witness Latoya Taylor, a jailer for the Panola County Sheriff’s Office, said that she was on the phone with a friend, who saw the fire. Taylor testified to calling it into dispatch, but later, authorities tried to pick up her son Eric at school over their investigation. She only let them talk to them if she brought him to the station, but they wouldn’t let her in the room during the interview, she said.
Palmer said there was no cell tower in Courtland, only surrounding areas. It couldn’t pinpoint Tellis’ location during the crime.
Co-cousel Alton Peterson argued that investigators looked at Tellis as a suspect, and “worked backward” to prove guilt.
Hale and Champion argued that the defendant tried to distance himself from the victim after the arson. He didn’t even check on her and her loved ones after hearing she was involved in a fire, Hale said.
The prosecution is arguing that Sherry Flowers, a local woman, picked up a hitchhiker, who claimed that he was trying to reach his aunt’s home. This was Tellis, prosecutors said. Flowers dropped off this man near the scene of the fire.
After the arson, Tellis went home and took a bath, Hale said. Champion suggested it might have been because the defendant smelled like gasoline.
But a Peterson pointed out, Flowers never identified this man as Tellis during testimony.
“She didn’t pick up Quinton Tellis, and she didn’t tell us she picked up Quinton Tellis that night,” he said. The state said keys were found across from Flowers’ yard, and this featured DNA that could’ve belonged to Tellis.
Peterson dismissed that. The DNA evidence wasn’t precise enough, there was no proof the defendant dropped the keys in the yard, and there wasn’t any proof Tellis was in a vehicle near the crime scene.
“Based upon what evidence?” Peterson said. “Based upon no evidence.”
Both sides played tug of war over first responder reports that Chambers blamed an “Eric.” By Palmer’s count, seven firefighters and two law enforcement officers claimed to hear this.
Champion framed this testimony as a good-faith mistake by first responders. He suggested that the name might have spread after one of them said the name.
“That’s fine,” he said. “These are good people. I know a lot of them.”
Prosecutors said Jessica was physically incapable of talking.
Hale cited testimony by Dr. William Hickerson, saying that Chambers’ burns were horrific.
“It was like she had a cast around her body,” he said. Hale argued that Jessica may have wanted to tell authorities who did this to her, but she was incapable of doing it.
The defense dismissed that notion, and asked the jurors to consider the reports written by first responders soon after the fire.
“Dr. Hickerson was not there,” said Palmer. “He just wasn’t.”
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