2nd mistrial in case of Mississippi woman burned to death
A Mississippi judge declared a second mistrial Monday in the capital murder case of a man accused of setting a woman on fire, after jurors once again said they couldn’t reach a verdict.
Panola County Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham made his ruling in the trial of Quinton Tellis after jurors deliberated for about 10 hours over two days. Tellis, now 29, was accused of setting Jessica Chambers ablaze in 2014.
As in the first trial, jurors had to choose between evidence that prosecutors said linked the defendant to Chambers’ death and testimony by emergency workers that they heard a dying Chambers say someone named Eric attacked her.
Panola County District Attorney John Champion told reporters after the mistrial Monday that he isn’t sure yet whether he will seek to try a man a third time on charges that he set a woman on fire in 2014.
“We put on what I believe is the very, very best case we could put on and they just couldn’t agree,” Champion said. “I can understand that.”
Defense Attorney Darla Palmer said the mistrial felt like a victory for the defense.
“It feels like a ‘not guilty’ to me, honestly,” Palmer told reporters. “This will be the second time we’ve done this. Each time, though we can’t get all the jurors to agree on it, we certainly had those that feel that he’s not guilty of this charge.”
Tellis won’t walk free. Champion said he will be sent to Louisiana to face charges there. Tellis has been indicted for murder in the stabbing death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a Taiwanese former graduate student, in the city of Monroe. Tellis has already pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of Hsiao’s debit card. He’s also serving a five-year sentence on an unrelated burglary conviction in Mississippi.
Defense attorneys again insisted that prosecutors had the wrong man, pointing to the testimony of 10 firefighters and emergency medical personnel who said they heard Chambers say “Eric” set her on fire. Champion said he thought that was a “huge part” of the inability to reach a verdict.
Emergency workers said the scene was filled with the clatter of fire engines and some said it was hard for them to understand what Chambers was desperately trying to tell them. Still, their accumulated testimony clearly made a difference. Prosecutors tried casting doubt on their statements, calling in a speech pathologist and a plastic surgeon who testified that in her badly burned state, Chambers was unlikely to be able to properly enunciate.
A federal intelligence analyst testified that Chambers had never gotten a phone call or a text from anyone named Eric. Her Facebook friends included an Eric and an Erik, but investigators ruled them out. A DNA analyst testified that although she couldn’t match Tellis to DNA found on Chambers’ keys, she couldn’t exclude him, although 99.7 percent of men could be excluded.
Prosecutors also countered with hours of videotaped interrogations in which Tellis repeatedly changed his story when confronted with new evidence. Tellis initially denied seeing Chambers late in the day, but later admitted he had been with her up until about an hour before her death.
Defense attorneys characterized those lapses as normal forgetfulness, but investigators characterized them as deception and lying.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Quinton Tellis did this,” Champion said after trial.
Prosecutors also relied on cellphone evidence showing Tellis and Chambers at similar locations and surveillance camera footage showing vehicles coming and going from his house at times consistent with their theory that Tellis drove a borrowed vehicle back to the crime scene to set the fire.
Defense attorneys attacked that timeline as implausible, saying that to do what prosecutors alleged, Tellis would have to be a “supercriminal.”