Mississippi jurors on Sunday began deliberating the fate of a man accused of murder following a second trial over charges that he set a woman on fire in 2014.
The case, tried in Batesville before jurors from another county, concluded after six days of testimony in the death of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers.
Jurors couldn't reach a verdict in 29-year-old defendant Quinton Tellis' first trial last year. The case, beginning with a smoldering and mortally wounded Chambers stumbling away from her burning car on the outskirts of the north Mississippi hamlet of Courtland, has captured wide attention.
Like in the first trial, closing arguments highlighted jurors' choice. Prosecutors say evidence links Tellis to Chambers' death and he lied to investigators. The defense emphasizes testimony by emergency workers that they heard a dying Chambers say someone named Eric attacked her and that prosecutors concocted a complicated theory that makes Tellis look like a "supercriminal."
"I believe we have proven element required and I contend to you we have proven every element required to prove Quinton Tellis guilty of capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt," Panola County Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale told jurors.
Hale pointed to cellphone location data and surveillance video that supports prosecutors' timeline. They say Tellis and Chambers had sex after returning to Courtland from eating at a fast food restaurant and that Chambers' car was driven to a roadside. They say Tellis walked home, dropping Chambers' keys along the way, catching a ride. Then they say he borrowed an SUV, got a gas can, and returned to set Chambers on fire.
"Quinton Tellis went down to that crime scene and lit this child on fire," Hale said.
Defense attorney Alton Peterson told jurors that's a complicated scenario making Tellis out to be a "supercriminal." He suggested that investigators, out of leads months after the crime, unfairly focused on Tellis. He said there are too many facts not in evidence and prosecutors are asking jurors to make too many "jumps" in a timeline that's "utterly ridiculous."
"They came back to Quinton Tellis and they started working backwards," Peterson said. "They came up with a picture and it was their job to make the evidence fit into that picture."
For example, they questioned a new witness who didn't testify in the first trial — Sherry Flowers — who said she picked up an unidentified black male whom prosecutors contend was Tellis.
"Something seem a little suspicious to you, someone showing up now?" asked defense attorney Darla Palmer in closing arguments. "Seems made up to me."
Defense attorneys also again pounded on testimony by 10 emergency workers that Chambers told them at the scene that "Eric" had attacked her. Palmer urged jurors to discount testimony by two experts who said Chambers couldn't have formed words properly.
"There is reasonable doubt in this case," Palmer said. "Where is Eric? Where is the actual search of Eric who did this?"
Prosecutors showed hours of interrogation video with Tellis, arguing multiple changes in his story showed he was lying.
"Quinton Tellis had obviously not been truthful with investigators," Hale said. "He lied."
Defense attorneys, though, said Tellis was being questioned 10 months or longer after the incident and shouldn't be blamed for misremembering some details.
"Did he appear to be dishonest?" Palmer asked. "That's the basic thing. No, he kept talking. He continued to talk about and wanted to give them information about what happened."
Tellis faces another murder indictment in Louisiana in the Monroe stabbing death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a former Taiwanese graduate student. He was already serving five years in prison in Mississippi on an unrelated burglary conviction and had already pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of Hsiao's debit card in Louisiana.
[Photo: Defendant Quinton Tellis, center, looks on as the jury goes to deliberate his case, as his defense attorneys Alton Peterson, left, and Darla Palmer confer during the retrial of Quinton Tellis in Batesville, Mississippi on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018; Credit: Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool]
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