Jury’s field trip includes site of deadly assault
Published 11:54 am Friday, October 13, 2017
Jury’s field trip includes site of deadly assault
By John Howell
Among questions that observers in the Quinton Tellis’ murder trial hope to hear answered, as testimony resumed today after yesterday’s field trip, is who was the mysterious man firefighters ordered to leave the scene where Jessica Chambers lay dying from her burns?
At least two firefighters testified Wednesday about a “middle-age black man” who walked up to the fire scene on Herron Road as volunteer firefighters from Courtland and Pope provided initial aid to Chambers while pouring water onto her burning car.
After Courtland volunteer firefighter and emergency medical responder Brandie Davis had first testified in response to a question from District Attorney John Champion about a suspicious man at the scene, he responded to defense attorney Darla Palmer when pressed further that the man was “suspicious enough” to have warranted getting the license tag number of the man’s car parked nearby.
Will Turner, another Courtland volunteer early on the scene of the Dec. 6, 2014 burning murder, said that when he told the man, who was then wearing a blue shirt, that the area was a crime scene and to leave, “he stared through me, looking at the car and into the woods.”
Turner said that the man walked away, continually looking over his shoulder. “By the time he got out of sight, he had on a tee shirt,” Turner said.
The other question among trial watchers — the big question — is what about Eric? Or Derek?
That is the name or names at least five of the first responders testified they heard or thought they heard after they arrived at the scene shortly after receiving the alarm around 8 p.m. that Saturday night.
In his opening statements to the jury Tuesday District Attorney John Champion asked them not to make a determination on the name “Eric” until they had heard all the testimony concerning the December 6, 2014 crime.
“Evidence will show Eric is not on trial here,” defense attorney Darla Palmer told jurors during her opening statement.
Champion and assistant District Attorney Jay Hale began a parade of more than 35 witnesses testifying for the state that continued Thursday afternoon.
Former Courtland Volunteer Fire Dept. Chief Cole Haley was among the first to arrive that night.
“I hope to never see anything like that again,” Haley told Champion.
Tears rolled down the young man’s face as he described what he found when Chambers, whom he knew as an acquaintance but did not recognize that night, walked from the woods. Haley’s testimony brought tears throughout the courtroom.
Palmer, assisted by attorney Alton Peterson, hammered first responders on their written occurrence reports where they stated the victim told responders that “Eric” did it when asked who set her on fire.
On Wednesday, testimony of first responders continued in a similar pattern with Champion and Hale alternately presenting state witnesses for their testimony and Palmer and Peterson cross-examining.
Their testimony consistently described a scene of chaos, noise and fear — noise from diesel fire truck engines, from fire truck water pumps, from sirens, from shouts–chaos as firefighters realized they were amidst a crime scene and attempted to secure it for law enforcement and fear that whoever had inflicted such injury on the young woman might still be nearby.
Panola County Deputy Sheriff Seth Moore, who had been a Courtland volunteer that night, said that he “looked toward the west and saw a silhouette of a person when she walked out of the woods.”
Other firefighters who arrived early at the scene described her as unrecognizable, “… walking like a zombie,” one said.
Emergency Management Director Daniel Cole was among those who encouraged the victim to speak by asking her questions to help them to determine the condition of her airway.
“When we asked who did it to her, she said, ‘Eric, Eric set me on fire,’” Cole said, in reply to a question.
During Cole’s cross examination, Palmer had Cole read his written statement, as she had the other first responders, about having heard “Eric.”
Panola County Sheriff Lt. Edward Dickson, an investigator, followed first responders, testifying about evidence collected at the scene, including a cell phone that would turn out to have belonged to the victim.
A neighbor who lived near the scene testified about keys later found near the scene which were turned over to Deputy Sheriff Tyler Mills. The keys were determined to have belonged to Chambers and are expected to become significant as evidence later.
The Thursday morning field trip was an extension of testimony begun by Panola County Sheriff Major Barry Thompson Wednesday afternoon when he pointed out on an aerial photograph the areas to be visited. They included the Panola County jail where the jury viewed the burned, rusted remains of the Kia Rio firefighters found burning that night; the Herron Road location where first responders found Chambers and her car; and the Courtland convenience store where the last images of Chambers were recorded on video as she bought gas that evening.
Jurors also saw the site where prosecutors say Chambers’ car keys were found; Tellis’ residence, across from M&M grocery; the house of Tellis’ sister; the house of Daniel Cole, where a path leads to the house of Tellis’ sister; and a secluded area near Tellis’ home.
Prior to resuming testimony before jurors upon return to the courtroom Tuesday afternoon, Judge Gerald Chatham announced that a photographer had violated the court’s rules prohibiting photographs of jurors. The judge said that he had taken the camera and removed the memory card, which he held.
The judge then had the photographer brought before him where the photographer apologized. He was fined $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which was suspended. Before releasing the photographer, the judge questioned him about whether any images of the jury had been transferred to other locations. He replied that there were none.
Thursday afternoon witnesses included a nurse practitioner for the Regional I Medical Center’s burn unit, the former deputy Medical Examiner for the State of Miss. and Dr. William Wesley Hickerson, Medical Director of the Regional I Burn Center.
During Major Thompson’s testimony, which resumed after Thursday afternoon’s recess, he said that investigators interviewed “at least 15 Erics” during the course of the investigation. He also said that Tellis was interviewed six days after Chamber’s death.
Testimony is also expected from representatives of Verizon and AT&T to explain how cell phone data was used to implicate the defendant. Other witnesses are expected to provide further medical details and technical explanations of how cell phone signals work.
“We’re going to work on Saturday. I’m going to get you back down here as quick as I can,” Chatham told the Pike County jury on Monday.