BATESVILLE, MS — A Mississippi jury was unable to find Quinton Tellis, 29, either guilty or not guilty on Monday of murdering Jessica Chambers in December 2014, when she was set on fire and later died from head-to-toe second and third degree burns. The jury was split, with seven voting guilty and five voting not guilty in an earlier polling.
The district attorney said he will absolutely seek a retrial.
The jury began deliberating at approximately 4:00 p.m. on Sunday after hearing closing statements from both defense and prosecuting attorneys, and failed to reach a decision the following afternoon after more than eight hours of deliberation. The annoucement came after a moment of confusion, in which the judge said they had reached a not guilty verdict, but jurors misunderstood their instructions and in fact were divided, coming back later to tell the court they could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Composed of seven black people and five white people, split evenly by gender, the jury's disagreement on the case did not fall along racial lines. Previously, this case has been discussed in connection with the town's racial makeup, but neither prosecutors nor defenders made any mention of race as being a factor in the crime during the trial.
After the judge declared a mistrial, district attorney John Champion said Monday he does not characterize this as a loss.
"I've been doing this long enough that I've had hung juries, you come back and you are successful sometimes and sometimes not," Champion said. "If you look at the facts of this case, none of them were contradicted. Like I said, there are a lot of issues in this case that we had to address, I felt like we addressed them. I have no regrets whatsoever. Obviously seven people believed us."
Defense attorney Darla Palmer said she felt the jurors made an honest effort to reach a verdict, despite the confusion in court, and said Tellis is "ready to reclaim his innocence."
"Quinton is just even-keel for the most part," Palmer said. "He is not one to get angry easily. He listens to the things we are explainging to him. At some point during the trial he did tear up a little during one of his interviews. I think that was because he placed himself back during that time and what when on in that interview and that it was not being represented accurately, the way it was represented in court. He is consistent about the fact that this is a crime he did not commit."
Emotions ran high in court as a false not guilty verdict was first read aloud in court. Defense attorneys said Tellis had a very high and very low moment when he realized the trial was actually declared a mistrial. Similarly, Champion said it was a difficult moment for Chambers' family.
"The family has been incredibly supportive of us. I've known Ben a long time and the family worked with us just like I expected them to. Obviously they are extremely dissapointed, but they understand we can come back and do this again," Champion said.
Early in the trial at least eight first responders testified to hearing Chambers say someone named Eric was responsible for setting her on fire, but prosecutors argued her injuries were so signifiant, she would have been unable to communicate clearly.
“I told you as this trial began, you were going to think to yourself, ‘Hmm. why are we here?’ Because when the first responders got to Jessica, they did not hear the name Quinton. They thought they heard the name Eric or Derrick,” Champion said during closing statements Sunday. “Maybe she was trying to say Tellis, she wasn’t trying to say Eric, because she couldn’t pronounce her t’s.”
Champion said the state believes Tellis repeatedly asked Chambers for sex, was denied it each time, and on the night she was murdered, rendered her unconscious while in a field near his residence. Champion said he then “had to get her out of there” and drove her to the scene, where he proceeded to use gasoline he kept in the shed by his house to light her on fire.
Chambers died the following morning in a Memphis hospital.
Defense attorneys, however, argued the investigation failed to adequately explore other possible suspects, including those with the name Eric or Derrick. They said investigators answered their questions vaguely, reflecting a lack of attention to detail throughout law enforcement’s investigation, and emphasized Chambers’ dying declaration, in which she said “Eric set me on fire” should have been explored further.
“Eight people individually who haid their experience with her who heard the name ‘Eric,’” defense attorney Darla Palmer said. “Eric is not on trial today, but ladies and gentlemen he should be.”