BATESVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Jurors deliberated more than four hours Sunday without reaching a verdict in the trial of a Mississippi man charged with burning a woman to death in 2014. The judge sent the sequestered group back to their hotel for the night, and court will be back in session for more deliberations Monday.
Defense attorneys argued Sunday that the wrong man is on trial and that their client, Quinton Tellis, should be found innocent because 19-year-old Jessica Chambers told firefighters that someone named Eric or Derek set her on fire.
“‘Eric’ is not on trial today, but ladies and gentlemen, he should be,” attorney Darla Palmer said during closing arguments on the sixth day of Tellis’ capital murder trial.
District Attorney John Champion said Chambers, who died hours after being set on fire, suffered severe damage to her mouth and throat and could not pronounce the letter T.
“Maybe she wasn’t trying to say ‘Eric,'” Champion said. “Maybe she was trying to say ‘Tellis.'”
Tellis, 29, pleaded not guilty and did not testify during the trial.
Champion said investigators were thorough in searching for people named Eric or Derek in the county where Chambers was killed and in surrounding counties. He said, however, that evidence points to Tellis, including an analysis of the locations of Tellis’ cellphone and Chambers’ cellphone the day she was set on fire.
Prosecutors theorize that Tellis had sex with Chambers before setting her and her car on fire and leaving her to die along a back road in Courtland, Mississippi, on Dec. 6, 2014. Tellis then drove Chambers’ car to a rural back road, ran to his sister’s house nearby, borrowed her car, stopped at his house to pick up a can of gasoline, and used the ignitable liquid to set Chambers on fire, prosecutors told jurors.
Tellis has told investigators he does not know who killed Chambers.
A severely burned Chambers was found walking near her burning car, and some first responders testified that she looked like a “zombie” with burned skin and hair. A doctor testified she had third-degree burns on most her body when she died at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Courtland.
During early interviews with law enforcement agents, Tellis said he only saw Chambers on the morning of the day she died. In another interrogation more than two years later, Tellis acknowledged that Chambers picked him up in her car at about 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 and they spent about 1 ½ hours together, according to videotaped interviews played for the jury Friday.
Paul Rowlett, who analyzes data as an intelligence specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford, was called in to help Panola County prosecutors with the investigation. During testimony Saturday, Rowlett showed jurors a series of maps, photos, videos and other visual aids in an attempt to show Tellis was with Chambers at night. Investigators received loads of data from the cellphones of Chambers and Tellis and gathered surveillance video from a store across the street from Tellis’ home.
Investigators concluded that Tellis and Chambers were together until around 7:30 p.m., Rowlett said. Video footage shows a vehicle that was likely Tellis’ sister’s stopping at Tellis’ house at 7:50 p.m. and staying for about two minutes before heading toward the crime scene.
Tellis has told investigators he kept a 5-gallon container of gasoline in a shed at his house. Prosecutors believe he was driving his sister’s vehicle when he picked up the gas from his shed before setting Chambers on fire.
Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Mississippi.