Clerk commends community Trial was taxing for Batesville Meek-Phelps says

 The Panola County circuit clerk’s office had charge of meals and refreshments for jurors during the Tellis trial in Batesville. Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps (second from left) and deputy clerks (from left) Charity Jones, Heather Turner, and Nikie Denley were happy to see the courthouse much less busy after Monday.

Photo by Jeremy Weldon

Twelve jurors sequestered in Batesville could not agree on a verdict for Quinton Tellis, but they are on the same page when it came to the attention given their stay in Panola County.

“They were just overwhelmed by the kindness of the people here, especially from all our restaurants,” said Circuit Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps. “Every one of the jurors said they really appreciated the way they were treated.”

Fifteen men and women were chosen from more than 350 potential jurors during a day-long proceeding at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse in Starkville on Sept. 24. Attorneys, representing the State of Mississippi and the defendant Tellis, questioned the prospective jurors for hours, choosing some and striking others, before settling on the final 15, of which three were designated as alternates to replace any juror who might not have been able to finish the week-long trial.

Those 15 people were transported to Batesville in three passenger vans after being given a short time to return to the their home and pack clothes and necessities. Once here, they were fed and taken to a local hotel, which would become their home-away-from-home until late Monday evening when a mistrial was declared and they were bused back to Starkville.

Meek-Phelps was charged with the general care of the jurors while they were in Panola County – a task that she embraced with her usual zeal and positive attitude.

“I will have to say that it was quite a challenge, but something that I did enjoy doing because I was aware that the jurors were out of their comfort zones, and I knew that the people of Batesville would do their best to make them feel as relaxed as possible considering everything that was going on,” she said.

Meek-Phelps said she could not have been more impressed by the response of Batesville. “They were just phenomenal. You have to remember that these were fifteen different people with their personal preferences, so it was a challenge to find a way to make them all happy. But, everyone just came together and it made my job so much easier, and I know they really appreciated it.”

The Panola County Sheriff’s Department, along with some state and federal agents, had charge of the jurors’ safety to and from their hotel during the week, and during the two court supervised field trips to the sites of the crime, Tellis’ home at the time of the murder, and to areas around Courtland that were pertinent to the testimony they heard.

The jurors had breakfast at their hotel each morning, but it was Meek-Phelps’ duty to provide lunch and dinner for the seven days, along with drinks and snacks for the jury.

“They were our guests, and I tried to treat them that way every day. It wasn’t always easy but in the end I was very impressed with the way our hometown people went out of their way to make them comfortable,” she said. “Knowing the people of Batesville, I really wasn’t surprised. We have a great town and wonderful people here. It was chance for everybody to show their hospitality.”

Many of the meals were from fast food restaurants, especially at lunch each day, because Meek-Phelps said she simply couldn’t plan other meals because she didn’t know what the court’s schedule would be day-to-day. Judge Gerald Chatham tried to maintain the same routine, but lunch breaks were at different times depending on when attorneys reached stopping places each day.

“I never know exactly when I would have to get their lunches ready so I was always trying to guess and plan to stay a step ahead. The jurors were very understanding though, and they never complained once.”

Tellis, who was kept locked away in a small cell just off the judge’s chambers during breaks, was brought plate lunches from the Panola County Jail each day, the same meals local inmates received. The court provided him water and soda when requested.

Meek-Phelps said Subway platters were brought in some days, along with orders from Wendy’s, Popeye’s, Sonic, Zaxby’s and others. A few times during the week county officials worked with local restaurants to bring the jury to dine inside, giving them an opportunity to eat somewhere other than the courthouse or their hotel.

There were dine-in nights at Pizza Hut and twice at Cracker Barrel, she said. “The restaurants were just great working with us, and they bent over backwards to make sure we could get them in and out without any disturbance.”

Ezell Pegues graciously volunteered to cook ribs for the jurors one day and Meek-Phelps said she purchased baked beans, cole slaw, and other sides from Dixieland BBQ one day. “They really enjoyed that day,” she said.

Other diners were also courteous, willing to wait for their orders while the kitchen staffs prepared and served the visitors. A sequestered jury must live without television, newspapers, social media, and any other form of news that might taint their view of the on-going trial and testimony they may have heard during the week.

When Judge Chatham greeted the jury one morning (as television live-streamed to the public), he said he heard they enjoyed an especially good meal the night before, and that comment set off a bevy of phone calls and social media posts, all wondering where the jurors had eaten. Rumors spread the jury had eaten at either Arena One or Como Steakhouse, but the clerk confirmed the jurors had actually enjoyed a nice dinner at Cracker Barrel.

Televisions were removed from the hotel rooms, and county officials were vigilant about limiting outside news that might prejudice the jurors’ opinion of the proceedings.

“It was really tiring, and my house was a mess when it was finally over, but I believe the jurors enjoyed their stay here the best they could under the circumstances,” Meek-Phelps said.

She said the residents of Batesville and all of Panola County should be commended for their efforts to accommodate the outsiders. “I hope we don’t have to do this again anytime soon, but I will always be thankful for the way our people responded during this very difficult time for our city and county.”

The circuit clerk said without the help of the deputy clerks in her office, and of Bobby Gates, who covers maintenance and janitorial duties at the courthouse, the week of trial proceedings would not have run so smoothly.