No verdict rendered in Chambers retrial

Supporters of Quinton Tellis were out in force Monday across from the Batesville courthouse as jurors deliberated the capital murder charge brought against him in the 2014 death of Jessica Chambers.

Photo by Jeremy Weldon

Another mistrial declared Monday

Courtland native Quinton Tellis was whisked away from the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville at 3:20 p.m. Monday by deputies of the Sheriff’s Department minutes after the jury in his capital murder trial told Circuit Court Judge Gerald Chatham Sr., they were hopelessly deadlocked after 12 hours of deliberation.

Chatham thanked jurors for their seven days of service, commending them for their attentiveness during testimony. “I wish you would have been able to reach a verdict,” he said. “These things happen. It’s part of our justice system.”

Tellis was tried last week, and Monday of this week, for the Dec. 6, 2014, murder of Jessica Chambers, 19, also of Courtland. She was found burning alive that night on Herron Road, just west of the town limits. Prosecutors said Tellis, 29, incapacitated Chambers during a sexual encounter in her car then drove the vehicle about three miles to a wooded area to hide his crime. They told the jury he returned to his house for a gas can then doused and lit her body.

A plastic surgeon from Memphis who specializes in burns testified that she likely burned three to five minutes in her car before adrenaline and sheer will helped her escape the vehicle.

Courtland firemen, responding to a reported car fire, found Chambers walking “zombie like” and burned beyond recognition on the road.

First responders smothered the flames and tried to comfort her while medical personnel rushed to the site. Chambers was taken by ambulance to the parking lot of Courtland Baptist Church where she was transferred to a medical helicopter and flown to the burn center at The Med. She died soon after arriving. Her attending nurse said it was obvious she could not survive, and doctors ordered only comfort care for the former cheerleader.

The jurors, chosen from Oktibbeha County and sequestered in Batesville, heard five days of testimony from witnesses and experts medical professionals, and began their deliberations Sunday afternoon.

They returned Monday to continue going over evidence and discussing the case, and sent word to the judged they could not reach a decision mid-morning. Chatham asked them to return to their deliberations, and make every effort to reach a consensus. The jurors agreed to continue working, and ordered lunch. An hour later they asked to again watch surveillance video presented by the State. Almost two hours later they sent a note to the judge announcing that they would not be able to reach a unanimous decision.

District Attorney John Champion and Assistant D.A. Jay Hale presented the Sate’s case. Jackson attorneys Darla Palmer and Alton Peterson once again defended Tellis.

One year ago, a Pike County jury could not reach a verdict in the case, and declared themselves hung in the same courtroom.

Tellis showed no emotion when Chatham made his announcement. Cheers erupted outside the courthouse where his supporters had gathered early Monday, holding signs in his support. The Chambers family was not in the courtroom for the final announcement, having already been told the jury was likely to say they couldn’t agree.

A high-ranking Panola County official, wishing to comment anonymously, said he doesn’t believe Tellis will be tried again for the crime citing “stress on the county” and the great expense of the two unsuccessful attempts to get a guilty verdict. As of presstime, the District Attorney’s office had not said whether there will be another effort to convict Tellis, who is already serving a sentence at Unit 29 in the Mississippi State Penitentiary on an unrelated charge.

Tellis is also under indictment in Louisiana, where authorities believe he tortured and killed a college student, Meing-Chen Hsiao in Monroe. He has already pleaded guilty to using her debit card unlawfully. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an order allowing Mississippi authorities to “borrow” Tellis and incarcerate him for these charges.

Prosecutors, aware that the jury’s failure to convict last year was based on reports that Chambers told several first responders a person named Eric, or Derrick, attacked her, tried from the beginning to show she could not have possibly said Eric, no matter how hard she was attempting to speak that night.

A speech pathologist and the burn specialist both testified that Chambers no doubt tried to answer questions about her attacker, but would have been unable to form intelligible words because of the trauma and thermal damage caused by the fire.

Additionally, prosecutors tried to convince jurors that first responders anxious to gather information from the dying woman, mistook “pain sounds” for the name Eric, and once the name was said aloud at the crime scene it “spread like wildfire.” About 10 people testified last year and again last week they heard Chambers say several words, including Jessica, cold, thirsty, no, and Eric.

The State also used the research and testimony of an intelligence analyst from the Department of Homeland Security who said cell phone records, including calls, texts, and location data, clearly showed that Chambers and Tellis were together most of the fateful day, including the minutes before her cell phone stopped sending signals because of the intense heat that shut the unit down.

They also used closed circuit surveillance footage taken by cameras at M&M Store on Hwy. 51 S. in Courtland to show that Chambers and Tellis’ visits to the store matched the timeline created from the cell phone data. Tellis was living with his mother at the time, almost directly across the highway from the store.

The jury saw video of vehicles arriving and leaving the house’s driveway at the same times prosecutors said their cell phones proved they were in the area, but defense lawyers maintained the State could not prove exactly when Chambers’ car arrived and left.

Tellis was first interviewed by investigators twice in the week following the burning death, but it was only after cell phone data was used in conjunction with the video evidence that law enforcement personnel realized Tellis had been untruthful in those sessions.

When confronted with the phone records and video, Tellis changed his story and admitted he and Chambers were together until shortly before her death, but denied being her killer. Prosecutors could not definitively place him at the scene at the time of her death, and his defense team zeroed in on the missing hour.

Defense attorneys repeatedly told jurors that Chambers was “walking and talking” when first responders arrived, and investigators only chose to charge Tellis when they could not find an Eric, or Derrick, to implicate.

Champion told the jury from the beginning he had only circumstantial evidence to show them, but reminded the six man, six woman jury that a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, combined with the solid cell phone data and video footage, could be used to reach a guilty verdict.

Champion and Hale also stressed to the jury that investigators had spent considerable time and resources checking the whereabouts and alibis of every Eric in Panola County and those in surrounding counties who might possibly have a connection to Chambers. No one by those names was even remotely connected to Chambers death, they said.