New trial set for man accused in woman, the burning of the dead

FILE – In this Oct. 12, 2017 picture, Quinton Tellis, center, stands with his defense attorneys Steve Palmer, left, and Alton Peterson, right, near the remains of Jessica Chambers car in Batesville, Miss. Tellis was charged with the burning of the 19-year-old Jessica Chambers to death. The trial ended in a mistrial, but Tells it to be repeated in the Rooms,’ the burning of the dead, from Tuesday, Sept. 25. (Brad Vest/The Commercial appeal via AP, Pool, FILE)

JACKSON, Miss. – It Was Quinton or Erik?

That is probably the choice again against Mississippi judges this week in the trial of Quinton Tellis, accused of the setting of the 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on fire in her car in December 2014, only to see the dying woman tumble down a rural backroad and be found by firefighters.

The terrible conditions of the former high school cheerleader’s death focused national attention on the victim, the home of Courtland, a hamlet about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Memphis, Tennessee. In a trial last year, jurors could not agree or Tellis was guilty of capital murder. The 29-year-old Tellis faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

He is facing another murder charge in Louisiana, in the torture death of Opinion-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese student of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. No seat in this case.

The Mississippi case is freighted with racial overtones because Tellis is black, while the Chambers was white.

Chambers had burns on more than 90 percent of her body and one of the firefighters who her described her as looking like a “zombie.” The defense remains focused on testimony by firefighters and other emergency workers who say they heard a badly injured Rooms to tell them that “Eric” or maybe “Derek” had attacked her before she was taken to a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital, where she died hours later.

“If we had one person say that she said: “Quinton set me on fire’, we would not have a trial,” attorney Alton Peterson told The Associated Press. “But we had nine who said Eric did and we have a second trial.”

Witnesses for the government claimed in the first trial, that Chambers, who had burns in her throat, was so injured and in shock, that they haven’t been able to properly pronounce words. A therapist can be called in the second trial to emphasize that point.

Prosecutors point to cell phone records that show Rooms and Tellis were together two times on the day she was burned. The second time, prosecutors say Chambers picked up Tellis about two-and-a-half hours before she was found burned, and they went to a fast-food outlet.

Tellis originally told investigators he was not with the Rooms on the evening of Dec. 6, but two years later changed his story and admitted that he was.

Citing statements Tellis made to investigators, Panola County District Attorney John Champion said Tellis Rooms and had sex in her car later in the evening. Champion said he believes that Tellis stifled Rooms, and thought that he had killed her. The defense, but denies that Tellis and Rooms had sex.

The prosecution of the theory is likely to be much the same in the second trial.

“We are going to stick to what we believe is our strongest case, and we put it on the last time,” Champion said.

But there is a new wrinkle. The prosecutors have summoned a woman named Sherry Flowers as a witness. Peterson said she is expected to testify that she gave a man a ride on the night of Chambers’ death. This could fill in a crucial gap linking Tellis to the crime scene. In the first trial, prosecutors had claimed Tellis traveled on foot from the place where he left Room to his sister’s house, got his sister’s car, collected a can of gasoline in his own house, and then returned to the car and an unconscious Rooms on the fire.

Defense attorneys, though, whether Flowers can identify Tellis as the man she carried.

“She indicates that she seen his face somewhere, but can’t remember where,” Peterson said.

Peterson also said the defense is likely to do more to challenge prosecution witnesses as well as mobile sites and on demand or Tellis’ DNA was found on the Room key ring into a ditch between the crime scene and the sister’s house.

Jurors are scheduled to be selected Monday in the city of Starkville and brought to the Panola County courthouse in Batesville for the test. Members of the jury will be sequestered, and both sides expected that the study will run at least in the next weekend. Peterson said the second trial could be longer than the first and that the defense would call first responder witnesses that the prosecution does not call in to drive home Eric the question.

“Our position remains the same,” Peterson said. “He didn’t commit this crime, someone else did, and she told them who did it. They just don’t do a good job of finding him.”


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