The prosecution in the case against Quinton Tellis, who is on trial for murder in the 2014 burning death of Mississippi teen Jessica Chambers, is asking more questions of their witnesses, some whom have altered their testimony significantly since the first trial, in order to strengthen perceived weaknesses in the first trial that ended in a hung jury.
The biggest effort is to discredit the testimony of first responders who heard Chambers say “Eric” set her on fire. Dr. William Hickerson, a physician with expertise in burn patients, testified Thursday and expanded on last year’s testimony. On the stand, he was adamant that Chambers could not make audible sounds at the scene — something he wasn’t as convincing on nearly a year ago during the first trial. Although, Dr. Hickerson conceded, Chambers was probably trying to communicate who set her on fire. He insisted today that her condition would not have deteriorated from the time she left the scene until she arrived via helicopter to a Memphis hospital. Despite at least eight first responders testifying under oath at both trials that they heard her speak and gesture, Dr. Hickerson, who was not at the scene, insisted he was right.
Investigators, though, apparently believed what Chambers said since they tracked down every Eric and Derek they could find in the area.
Dr. Hickerson’s testimony today added a few details that he did not mention last year. He testified that Jessica was exposed to a high heat source for three to five minutes, consistent with being unconscious in her burning car. He also testified to a seemingly critical detail that Jessica had bruises on her front torso not caused by the fire. Conveniently, this new testimony fits the prosecution’s theory that Tellis struggled with Chambers just before she became unconscious.
Warning: The below video contains graphic images.
Another new detail that emerged on the third day of the retrial involves a statement allegedly made by Tellis to FBI Special Agent Dustin Blount. Blount testified that he spoke to Tellis at his home on December 18, 2014, about two weeks after Chambers died. He testified that he questioned Tellis about his relationship with Chambers and how much time they spent together.
On Thursday, Blount said Tellis told him he went to Batesville twice with Chambers, once to go to a liquor store, and that Chambers drove her car on that occasion. Before his arrest, Tellis told investigators the opposite—that he had driven Chambers’s car only once and it was when the two went to a liquor store in Batesville. This new detail’s significance is that the State maintains Tellis’s DNA was found on the keys. Tellis, who always denied killing Chambers, had offered another explanation for his DNA on the keys.
Questions surrounding a “mystery man,” a key in the defense’s closing argument at the first trial, were finally answered. An unidentified man at the crime scene, had raised the suspicions of first responders. Last year, the defense suggested that the mystery man was Eric. On day three of testimony in the retrial, that man was identified by Major Barry Thompson as Willie Taylor. Thompson told jurors that Taylor lived near the crime scene and, at his wife’s urging, went there to make sure his daughter wasn’t the victim.
Thursday morning, jurors took a field trip to several key locations mentioned in the testimony including the crime scene, Tellis’s home and shed, the area where Jessica’s keys were found, and the store across the street where Chambers was captured on video about two hours before she was set on fire.
In an unusual move, the judge allowed jurors to visit the crime scene Thursday evening for the second time in the same day as prosecutors attempt to reconstruct the noise level as it was that night almost four years ago. This is seen as another effort by prosecutors to dismantle the damaging evidence that Jessica may have identified her killer as someone named Eric, and not Quinton Tellis. Fire trucks, the same ones that had responded the night Chambers was burned, were positioned just as they were that night.
The judge cut short the nighttime jury view just as the defense was starting to cross examine a witness at the scene — with the noisy fire trucks running. Sources at the scene said it seemed abrupt and without warning. The judge told the defense to finish their cross examination Friday morning in the courtroom.
[Photo: Dr. William Hickerson, a plastic surgeon, testifies during the retrial of Quinton Tellis on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, in Batesville, Miss; Credit: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool]