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Unknown hitchhiker: Link to Mississippi burning death?

September 27, 2018
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Lead prosecutor John Champion speaks during the retrial of Quinton Tellis in Batesville, Miss., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Tellis is charged with burning 19-year-old Jessica Chambers to death in December 2014. Tellis has pleaded not guilty to the murder. (Mark Weber /The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool)

BATESVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A woman testified Wednesday that she picked up a hitchhiker the night that a Mississippi woman was fatally burned, but she’s unsure whether it’s the man prosecutors have on trial.

Quinton Tellis is being retried on capital murder charges, accused of burning Jessica Chambers on a rural backroad on the outskirts of the Mississippi hamlet of Courtland in 2014. She died hours later in a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital. A jury couldn’t reach a verdict in Tellis’ first trial last year.

Sherry Flowers didn’t identify Tellis in court Wednesday and agreed with a prosecutor that she didn’t know whom she picked up.

Flowers, who didn’t testify last year, said a man flagged her down and she stopped because she believed it might be her cousin. It wasn’t, but she agreed to pick up an African-American man whom she described as appearing to be about 20 years old and having a small to medium build. Tellis, who is 5-foot-9 (1.75-meter), was 26 at the time

Still, prosecutors sought to connect the ride to Chambers’ death, suggesting it was the right time for Tellis to be heading away from Chambers’ car before he returned to burn it. Prosecutors also called witnesses who lived at the destination the hitchhiker cited who said they were cousins of Tellis.

The defense disputed the timing, and Flowers acknowledged she wasn’t sure what time she made the trip, saying only “I know I picked someone up.”

After Flowers left the Batesville courthouse, the Clarion Ledger reported deputies made a “traffic stop” of an individual who may have been following Flowers. Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby said he didn’t know who had been stopped or if anyone had been arrested.

Flowers picked up the hitchhiker close to a location where a sheriff’s investigator had testified on Wednesday that a Courtland resident found Chambers’ keys in a ditch two days after her death. The defense objects to the keys being entered into evidence because officials can’t prove where the keys were during that time.

Four more emergency workers testified Wednesday that they heard Chambers say something that sounded like Eric when asked who had attacked her, bringing the total to give such testimony to 10 first responders over two days. One said she described the attacker as a black person, while another said Chambers indicated the attacker was not her boyfriend. The defense contends prosecutors have the wrong man on trial.

Several also described Chambers wounds.

“Skin was hanging off of her lips (and) out of her nose,” emergency medical technician Bradley Dixon testified. “Her eyelashes and eyebrows were gone. The hair on top of her head was a big singe-ball.”

A medical examiner testified that Chambers’ death was a homicide from soot and smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. Dr. Erin Barnhart said Chambers had burns over 93 percent of her body. She said Chambers was probably sitting when she was burned because of unburned tissue on her rear and lower back.

“I think the most likely scenario based on that pattern was that she was seated,” Barnhart testified.

Prosecutors have said they believe Chambers was reclined in the passenger seat of her car when she was set on fire.

Another analyst testified gasoline was found on the remains of Chambers’ bra. Prosecutors have said they believe Tellis retrieved a gasoline can from a shed after he left the scene the first time and returned to set the car and Chambers ablaze.

The trial is scheduled to continue Thursday with jurors touring locations involved in the crime and hearing from more witnesses.

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