First responders again recalled the traumatic night they found 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on a rural road in Courtland, Mississippi in December 2014.
“I don’t know how she was alive,” first responder Shane Mills testified on the first day of Quinton Tellis’s retrial Tuesday.
Chambers was walking on the side of the road, her 2005 Kia Rio ablaze just feet away. She would live only five more hours, her body covered with second and third degree burns. But, in the critical minutes while still at the scene, she spoke to her rescuers, many of them later claiming she named “Eric” as the person who set her on fire.
In the early months of the investigation, someone named Eric was believed to be Chambers’ killer, yet investigators could find no viable suspects named Eric or Derek or even Erica. Fourteen months after Chambers’ death, Quinton Tellis, 29, was charged with her murder. Testimony about “Eric” was an obstacle prosecutors couldn’t overcome at Tellis’s first trial last year. That trial ended with a deadlocked jury.
Ten first responders testified in the exact order they were called last year. While their testimony differed little, attorneys on both sides elicited more details about that night, focusing on the noise level of the fire trucks at the scene and challenging their own witnesses about whether they could have heard a raspy Chambers name her killer.
The first responders said that at least two fire truck engines were running at the scene but the sirens were turned off. More than one first responder said they knelt on the ground and put their ear to Chambers in order to hear her, and maintain it sounded like she said “Eric.”
There was one new detail that emerged: Cole Haley, one of the first to arrive at the scene that night, testified that he spotted Jessica walking toward him, asking for help. He revealed a new detail today about something else Jessica said to him at the scene when he quoted her as saying: “I’m going to die.”
Earlier in the day, prosecutors called an expert witness they chose not to call the first time: speech language pathologist Dr. Carolyn Higdon. On the stand, Dr. Higdon strongly asserted that, because of her severe burns, Chambers could not have spoken clearly or enunciated the words first responders claim they heard.
Many of the volunteer firefighters prepared written reports within days of the incident noting that Chambers was talking and that she named Eric as the person who set her on fire. On cross examination by the defense, several of these witnesses were asked to read aloud their reports which appeared to undermine the opinion of Dr. Higdon that Chambers could not speak.
Quinton Tellis denies he killed Chambers. He faces life without parole, if convicted.
[Photo: Deputy Prosecutor Jay Hale holds up a picture of Jessica Chambers on the first day of the retrial of Quinton Tellis in Batesville, Miss., Tuesday, Sept. 25 2018; Credit: Associated Press]