Jessica Chambers case: Mistrial declared for Quinton Tellis in teen's burning death

Quinton Tellis, left, standing trial in a Batesville, Miss. courtroom Cct. 15, 2017 in the 2015 burning death of Jessica Chambers, right

AP/WREG

BATESVILLE, Miss. -- Jurors have deadlocked in the case of a Mississippi man charged in the gruesome death of a teen who was burned alive.

Quinton Tellis, 29, is charged with capital murder in the death of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers. 

Some first responders who testified in the emotional trial, several in tears, said Chambers looked like a "zombie," with burned skin and hair, when she walked from a wooded area in Courtland, Mississippi, on Dec. 6, 2014. She died hours later at a hospital in Memphis, about 60 miles north of Courtland.

Jurors struggled to reach a unanimous ruling Monday afternoon as they twice announced they had reached a verdict, only to be returned to deliberations when a judge determined their verdict was not unanimous. 

Monday afternoon, the jury gathered after announcing they had reached a verdict, but courtroom confusion ensued when a juror spoke up telling the judge it was not unanimous.

Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham then re-instructed the jury that their decision must be unanimous and sent them back to deliberate. When they returned minutes later, they announced a unanimous verdict of not guilty. But a polling of each individual juror found seven of the 12 jurors had voted to convict Tellis.

The jurors were again sent back to deliberate, and when they returned around 5 p.m., they announced a deadlock. Chatham then dismissed the jurors and declared a mistrial.

Chambers' words to first responders before she died emerged as a key point of contention during the trial. Multiple firefighters who tried to help the teen testified Chambers told them someone named "Eric" or "Derek" burned her.

Defense attorneys argued Sunday that the wrong man is on trial and that their client should be found innocent.

"'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.

Tensions grew outside the courthouse as the jury was again sent back to deliberations, with one woman yelling, "Go find Eric!" reports CBS affiliate WREG reporter Bridget Chapman via Twitter.

District Attorney John Champion acknowledged that "Eric" is not the name of the man he's prosecuting, but told jurors he believed evidence in the case would "change your mind." He said Chambers 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 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.

Citing statements Tellis made to investigators, Champion said Tellis and Chambers had sex in her car the evening she was found burned. Champion said he believes Tellis suffocated Chambers and thought he had killed her.

Tellis then drove Chambers' car with her inside 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 said.

Tellis has told investigators he does not know who killed Chambers.

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 five-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.