After long week time to move on


By Jeremy Weldon

Observations of happenings around the Panola County Courthouse the past seven days…

As the capital murder trial of Quinton Tellis got underway in Batesville last week, the Square was besieged with law enforcement, media, and spectators. Circuit Court Judge Gerald Chatham, Sr., set strict ground rules for the proceedings, and everyone seemed happy to comply (for the most part) with his standards.

As for the media, Chatham allowed just one television camera inside the courtroom along with one still camera. Most of the T.V. people stayed outside in their vans, filing updates from the parking lot a few times a day. The still photographer took lots of pictures of the same things – the judge, the attorneys, the witnesses, the defendant, and both families involved in the sordid matter.

The Jackson and Memphis newspapers both sent reporters, and I noticed they generally took turns in the courtroom, one covering mornings and the other afternoons. I suppose they were sharing notes, although they both were present for the jury deliberations. With all the proceedings live streamed, people everywhere could see the official actions taken, but much of the real news was taking place when the camera was off.

Regular courthouse business carried on despite the extra activity, and people coming in for car tags, garbage bill issues, marriage licenses, and the such often seemed intimidated by all the extra activity. More than one person came in, looked around, and decided to come back another day for their business.

Divorce court was held one day in the supervisors’ room and someone noted that those cases were once a big deal around the courthouse. Last week those hearings were basically ignored, but I did see one woman exit that court with a big smile and holding tight to the fresh decree just issued. Her glee was in sharp contrast to the solemn faces lining the hallways.

Recesses and lunch breaks always resulted in long lines at the bathrooms. I noticed more than once that family members of both Jessica Chambers and Quinton Tellis, and members of both the prosecution and defense were all standing in bathroom lines together.

Fresh coffee was also in high demand. Circuit Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps said she had brewed  70 pots as of Monday morning. The vending machines were also popular, although whomever owns the drink box missed a lot of business when a bottle of water fell the wrong way and became wedged, disabling the delivery mechanism last week. The drink machine didn’t work the last few days of the trial, disappointing many potential customers.

There was a lot of sitting around and waiting, and lots of “tales from the trails” were swapped between law enforcement and attorneys. Overheard in the hallway during one break was the account of someone who has apparently retired after suffering his second heart attack, and when asked what he’s been doing lately replied “not much, just riding, drinking, and smoking.”

On Friday, a very excited woman came up to me to ask if I was the media. Sort of, I replied, and asked what she needed. “I want to meet Janice Roach. I see her on T.V. all the time and I want her autograph,” she said. I told her the veteran reporter’s name is actually Janice Broach and pointed her out. I’m not sure if she got an autograph or not, but she certainly was excited to meet her.

District Attorney John Champion, a portly fellow, was the recipient of some good-natured ribbing during the week, with the judge once commenting that it didn’t appear he had missed many meals. An expert witness describing how many cells a human body can have and what the DNA makeup can be was asked by Champion if she thought he might have more cells than others. She stammered a bit, and finally mumbled something about “mass” making a difference. Champion just laughed and it was a light moment for everyone.

The judge had a few funny lines, too, remarking one night when he was about to send the jury back to their hotel that he had two cats, five chickens, and a wife waiting on him at his own house.

During a break one afternoon (my days got jumbled so I’m not sure which day) the judge was standing behind the courthouse getting some fresh air when he called me over to ask about John and Rupert, and to say The Panolian was his favorite newspaper to read. He said we do a good job for a small town, and especially bragged on the sports coverage. He rightfully pointed out that almost no small town newspaper continues to provide weekly updates on the performances of hometown athletes who now play at various high schools and colleges.

Saturday morning, just as I arrived, a solemn faced court official informed me Judge Chatham wanted to see me as soon as I got to the courthouse. Already tired (my son played baseball games until late Friday in Southaven), I had a full blown anxiety attack as I was escorted to the bailiff.

The bailiff held a poker face while he informed the judge I was there, and my knees were knocking when I saw the judge holding a copy of The Panolian, and looking stern. In a pre-trial meeting in his chambers, he had warned any miscues from the press would earn the offender a prompt trip to the local lockup. Turns out, though, he was holding a Sept. 7 edition of the paper that he said had only arrived in his mailbox on the 20th. He wanted to know why I had sent him an outdated paper. Finally, they all started laughing, and let me off the hook.

I want every subscriber to receive The Panolian on its proper delivery date, but especially when the subscriber is a judge and can throw me in the clink. They all had good laughs, but the poor editor was still shaking an hour later.

Chatham got a little ribbing, also, as three times during the long seven days we returned from break and the judge told the attorneys to proceed, forgetting to have the bailiff bring in the jury first.

In all, it was a hard week for Panola County and especially with the good people personally involved. It wasn’t easy to watch some of my friends under such pressure, but everyone held up fine and in the end it was encouraging to see how professional the law officers and courthouse officials conducted the business of the people.

Let’s hope it’s a long, long time before we have to endure such a painful experience. The victim’s family doesn’t deserve what has been a four year nightmare, and Panola County certainly needs to move on.

We will never forget Jessica, and the horrible crime that took her away. God willing, justice will one day be done, but until then the people of Panola must move forward toward brighter days and lighter hearts.