BATESVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Riding in white vans, 15 jurors in the trial of a man charged with setting a woman on fire and killing her were taken through the streets and dirt roads of two small Mississippi towns Thursday to visit the crime scene, houses, a convenience store and other key locations in the case.
Following in a caravan of more than 15 vehicles were Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham, prosecutors, defense attorneys, media, law enforcement officers and relatives of Quinton Tellis, who is charged with capital murder in the death of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers.
Prosecutors say Tellis set Chambers’ car on fire along a back road near a tree farm in Courtland in December 2014. A passing motorist saw a smoldering Chambers walking down the road and called authorities.
Emergency personnel treated and spoke with Chambers, who had burns on most of her body. She died at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tellis could receive life in prison without parole if convicted in Batesville, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Memphis. His lawyer says he’s falsely accused. Firefighters testified they heard Chambers say someone named Eric set her on fire. Prosecutor John Champion contends that she could have been saying “Tellis,” but the damage done to her throat and mouth made it sound different.
The nearly three-hour trip to eight locations was intended to support the prosecution’s theory through visuals. Citing statements Tellis made to investigators, Champion said Tellis and Chambers had sex in her car on a dirt road next to his house on the evening of Dec. 6. 2014. Champion said he believes Tellis suffocated Chambers and thought he had killed her.
Tellis then drove Chambers’ car with her inside it to a back road about a mile away, ran to his sister’s house nearby, borrowed a car, stopped to pick up gasoline from a shed at his house and torched Chambers’ car with her inside, Champion said.
Jurors were taken to the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, where her scorched car is stored. Carrying notebooks and pens, they inspected the compact car, stained with dark orange rust. Authorities said Chambers was discovered walking along the road near the burning car, wearing only underwear.
At each stop, prosecutor Jay Hale asked investigator Barry Thompson to describe the location and its role in the investigation. Defense lawyer Alton Peterson then cross-examined Thompson. Everyone stood — except for the court reporter, who had a chair.
The panel was then driven to the area where Chambers’ burning car was found on a grassy embankment near a gate blocking the entrance to private property. During the drive, motorists stopped to watch the caravan — perhaps mistaking it for a funeral procession. Officers blocked intersections and people waved to the motorcade of vehicles with blinking hazard lights.
Thompson said Chambers was seen walking toward the car and treated on the back road, next to a firetruck.
Next stop was a shallow gully near the crime scene where Courtland resident Jerry King testified he found Chambers’ keys while talking his child for a walk in the days after Chambers died. Champion has said Tellis dropped Chambers’ keys as he ran to his sister’s house, and that Tellis’ DNA is on them.
The group then went to the home of firefighter Daniel Cole on a dirt road near the crime scene and the gully. Thompson said a tree-lined dirt road behind Cole’s house leads to a subdivision where Tellis’ sister lived. The jury then saw the other end of the access road at Tellis’ sister’s wood-framed house.
Robertson asked investigator Thompson if there is evidence that Tellis was in the area of Cole’s house or the access road the night Chambers was found. Thompson said there wasn’t.
M&M Grocery Store was next. An outdoor surveillance camera points at Tellis’ house across the street. Prosecutors plan to use the video to identify when vehicles left the area of Tellis’ house.
Jurors then got to see Tellis’ house on Highway 51 and the shed where he allegedly stopped to pick up the gas container. The final stop was a back road adjacent to Tellis’ house, where Tellis said he had sex with Chambers.