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Courts & Trials

Mistrial Declared for Man Accused of Murdering 19-Year-Old Former Cheerleader Who Was Set on Fire

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A Mississippi jury could not reach a verdict of guilt or innocence in the murder trial of the man charged in the horrific 2014 burning death of 19-year-old former high school cheerleader Jessica Chambers, according to multiple news reports.

Quinton Tellis, 29, an acquaintance of Chambers who grew up in the same small-town neighborhood in Courtland, Mississippi, and attended the same high school, had faced life in prison without parole if convicted.

Authorities investigated for more than a year before bringing a murder charge against Tellis in the death of Chambers, who was found near her car along a back road on the night of Dec. 6, 2014. Both she and her black 2005 Kia Rio had been doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Chambers was flown by air ambulance to Memphis, Tennessee, where she died from her injuries early the next morning.

Judge Gerald Chatham declared a mistrial in Tellis’ trial on Monday, after sending jurors back three times to deliberate in an attempt to reach a unanimous verdict, the Associated Pressthe Clarion-Ledger and local TV station WREG report.

Prosecutors quickly announced their intention to retry Tellis — who has maintained his innocence — according to the AP.

The concluding hours of the trial had their own share of drama, as the jury initially filed into the courtroom on Monday to reveal a verdict only to be short-circuited by one juror who said the unannounced decision was not unanimous, as required.

Judge Chatham, who oversaw the trial in Batesville, Mississippi, then sent the jurors back for further deliberations — and when they returned a second time, a verdict of not-guilty was announced.

But when the judge polled jurors individually, several said they had voted “guilty.”

That led the judge to send the divided panel back a second time for further deliberations, and then again a third time, before he acknowledged they were “hopelessly deadlocked” and thanked them for their service.

The mystery of who attacked Chambers lasted for months and made national headlines. After extensive investigation, Tellis was indicted in February 2016.

Authorities had zeroed in on phone records that they alleged placed him with the teen at the approximate time of her attack.

His defense attorneys argued during trial that Chambers identified her killer at the scene — saying it was someone named “Eric” — and that at least eight first-responders heard her say that name, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

Defense attorney Darla Palmer noted that neither Chambers nor the person who introduced Chambers and Tellis knew the accused as “Eric.”

“‘Eric’ is not on trial today, but ladies and gentlemen, he should be,” Palmer said in her closing argument, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

Palmer also reportedly said her client was several miles away at a store purchasing a pre-paid debit card at the time of the attack.

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Jessica Chamber
Quinton Tellis
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In turn, the prosecution called burn expert Dr. William Hickerson, who testified the victim’s injuries to her mouth and tongue were so severe that she likely would not have been able to pronounce words correctly.

Chambers was unable to provide responders with a last name for her attacker.

Even so, District Attorney John Champion told jurors that investigators considered and ruled out several Erics and Dereks before charges were filed against Tellis.

The prosecution created a timeline using video information and phone data to argue that Tellis and Chambers were together that night, before Tellis allegedly set fire to Chambers and her car, reports WREG.

Texts also showed that the two had been in contact with each other that night — although Tellis’ defense attorney Alton Peterson noted that it was Chambers who reached out first via text and that Tellis did not hound Chambers for sex as the messages may have implied.

In his closing remarks to the jury, Champion said prosecutors did not believe the two had sex that night, but that something nonetheless occurred between them that led to Chambers becoming unconscious before she was set on fire. (Champion has previously said authorities believed Chambers and Tellis did have sex that night.)

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As Tellis was questioned during the investigation about the killing, Champion argued, he repeatedly changed his account of his whereabouts and activities on that night and deleted all evidence of Chambers from his phone to distance himself from her.

“She had a life full of tomorrows, and she had every right to wake up on the morning of Dec. 7, 2014. Now, three years later, she’d be 22. Would she be married? Would she have kids?” Champion said during his closing argument. “That was all taken away from her at 8:04 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2014.”

Tellis did not take the stand in his defense.

He faces charges in an unrelated murder case, in Louisiana, where authorities suspect he killed Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old former Taiwanese exchange student.

She was found dead in August 2015 with multiple stab wounds, defensive wounds and slicing wounds in her upper back.

Tellis has pleaded not guilty in that case, which is pending the outcome of his charges in Chambers’ death.