Opening statements were delivered Tuesday in the capital murder trial of 29-year-old Quinton Tellis, who was wiping tears away from his eyes after making eye contact with his family in the courtroom. Tellis has pleaded not guilty to the murder. Prosecutors claim he set Jessica Chambers on fire, and is responsible for her death.
John Champion, district attorney told the packed courtroom in Batesville, Mississippi that Chambers “was a beautiful, blonde-haired 19-year-old” from Courtland, a tiny town not far from Batesville. He alleged that Tellis took her young life away from her. He pointed to circumstantial evidence that included DNA, cell phone data and surveillance footage from a gas station to back up that claim. Chambers' car keys were found a quarter mile from her car two days later. Tellis’ DNA was found on that set of keys, Champion said. He said the cell phone data puts the two together right before Jessica was set on fire.
“You will see text messages between the two where Quinton is constantly asking Jessica for sex and she is constantly turning him down,” Champion said. “There was a series of text messages between the two, even on the day that she died, where he is asking her for sex.”
He then pointed to the crime scene in December 6, 2014, when first responders discovered Chambers walking towards them, badly burned wearing nothing but her panties. Prosecutors believe her bra had burnt off. It was 40 degrees out. Champion said that Tellis admitted to the FBI that he had sex with Chambers on a prior occasion, in her car, near the Tellis home. Champion suggested Tellis was referring to the night in question.
“I think he suffocated her and thought he had killed her (near his home) and had to get her away from his house. He wanted sex. You’ll see the text messages…” Champion said. The district attorney said the suspect changed his story at least three times. He also allegedly texted Chambers after killing her and then called his girlfriend. Champion said that was an attempt to create a false alibi. Tellis also claimed he was with a friend the night of Chambers' death. However, that friend told police he didn't see Tellis that night. In fact, he was not in the state.
Darla Palmer, defense attorney, told the jury that Champion’s information is inconsistent and that the cell phone data in Courtland is unreliable. She also pointed to at least eight first responders who arrived on the scene.
“There were at least eight responders who talked to her. They asked her who did this to her. Many of the first responders completed reports and what they put in their reports, you'll see it’s in quotes: ‘Eric set me on fire.’ She didn’t mention any other name.” Palmer said that when asked the man’s last name, Chambers didn’t have an answer. But, she said that Chambers knew Tellis and his last name.
“Eric is not on trial today. He should be,” she concluded.
Tellis is also a suspect in the murder of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old University of Louisiana-Monroe student from Taiwan, who was found stabbed to death eight months after Chambers was killed. Tellis has not been charged or indicted for Hsiao's murder. However, he pleaded guilty to the unauthorized use of Hsiao’s credit card, which resulted in a decade-long jail sentence.
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