Jessica Chambers case: Burned teen's own words before death key at murder trial

Jessica Chambers

AP Photo/Chambers-Prince Families

BATEVILLE, Miss. -- As a capital murder trial opened Monday for a suspect in a Mississippi teen's gruesome burning death, a prosecutor and a defense attorney clashed over the significance of the victim's words to first responders hours before her death.

29-year-old Quinton Tellis has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers, who was found next to her burning car along a back road in Courtland, Mississippi, about 70 miles south of Memphis, on Dec. 6, 2014.

District Attorney John Champion described a ghastly scene as firefighters responding to a report of a torched car saw Chambers walking toward them, clad only in underwear and critically burned over 93 percent of her body. 

He said Chambers suffered an agonizing death.

"Horrific burns, horrific pain," Champion said. "I would venture to guess if all of us sitting here were to know we're going to die, that the very last way we would want to die would be by fire. But Jessica was set on fire."

Before Chambers died about four hours later at the Memphis hospital to where she had been airlifted, she tried to name her own killer, Champion said Tuesday during opening statements in Batesville. Multiple firefighters who tried to help the teen said Chambers told them someone named "Eric" or "Derek" burned her.

Champion acknowledged that that's not the name of the man he's prosecuting, but told jurors he believed evidence in the case would "change your mind." He said Tellis, a friend of Chambers, admitted to being with her on the day she died, but changed his story repeatedly to local, state and federal investigators about when he spent time with her that day.

Tellis first told investigators he only saw Chambers on the morning of her death, but later acknowledged they were together in the evening, saying he met her to sell her marijuana, Champion said.

Tellis texted Chambers, who he had met about two weeks before, repeatedly to ask for sex, and she repeatedly turned him down, Champion said. Cell evidence placed the two in the same location on the day of her death, Champion said, and Tellis told investigators he had sex with her that day in her car.

Champion said he believed Tellis suffocated Chambers and "thought he had killed her," but realized the woman was still alive. Tellis then drove Chambers' car with her inside of it to the back road, ran to his sister's house nearby, jumped in his sisters' car, stopped to pick up gasoline from a shed at his house and torched Chambers' car and her, Champion alleged.

Tellis' DNA was on Chambers' car keys, found about 1/8 of a mile away, Champion said.

Chambers was so severely burned she may have had difficulty speaking, Champion said, offering a possible explanation for why first responders heard her say "Eric" or "Derek." But defense attorney Darla Palmer cautioned jurors against discounting the victim's own words. Palmer said at least eight first responders heard Chambers say the name "Eric," and also reported she said she didn't know his last name.

"She knew Quentin," Palmer said. "She knew his name is Quentin Tellis. But she did not say that that day."

Palmer argued that the case is "full of reasonable doubt" and said evidence would show that Tellis was in Bateville, miles away from the crime scene, buying a pre-paid debit card to send to his girlfriend during the time prosecutors allege he was killing Chambers.

"I submit to you that nothing the state will present to you will change your mind," Palmer said.

Palmer told the jury that Tellis never confessed to the killing.

Authorities have said about 20,000 telephone numbers were analyzed as part of the investigation, more than 150 people were questioned, and investigators traveled to Iowa and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

A first responder who was one of the first to testify Tuesday cried as he recalled trying to help the burned woman, and was seen hugging Chambers' father as he stepped down from the stand. Chambers' mother Lisa Chambers also gave emotional testimony, tearing up as she identified her daughter and saying, "That's my baby girl."

Tellis faces life in prison without parole if convicted, according to an April 18 court filing in which state prosecutors disclosed they wouldn't seek the death penalty.

Tellis faces another murder indictment in Louisiana, where he's accused in the torture death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. That indictment alleges that Tellis probably stabbed Hsiao more than 30 times in her face and body with a knife to get her to reveal her debit card's PIN number before killing her on July 29, 2015. He was extradited to Mississippi from Louisiana in June after pleading guilty to fraudulent use of Hsiao's card.

Tellis has prior convictions for burglary and fleeing police. He was released from prison in October 2014 -- two months before Chambers' killing.

Tellis appeared to wipe away tears Tuesday before trial proceedings launched. His family was gathered in the courtroom.

Relatives have described Chambers as friendly and outgoing. She had been a cheerleader and softball player at South Panola High School.

Area resident Beth Brasher, 40, said she knows Tellis and says he "comes from a good family." Asked about the Chambers case, she said he believes Tellis is wrongly accused, but acknowledged the crime "tore up" the community.

"That girl died a horrible, horrendous death that she didn't deserve," Brasher said.