Jessica Chambers, then 19, was burned alive in Mississippi in 2014 and her suspected killer, Quinton Tellis, is going on trial again for murder

By Jeff Truesdell
September 21, 2018 04:37 PM
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Jessica Chambers‘ mom is haunted by the moment she urged her daughter to let go of her pain after an attacker doused the 19-year-old former high school cheerleader with gasoline and set her on fire nearly four years ago, leaving her to die from her injuries.

“I felt that she hung on long enough to know that she could hear one of our voices,” Lisa Daugherty tells PEOPLE. “And as soon as she did, and I told her that it was okay, she passed away.”

Says Daugherty, a former nurse: “I know that there was nothing they could do to save her.”

Chambers’ post-sundown assault on Dec. 6, 2014, on a rural roadside in tiny Courtland, Mississippi, drew national attention including a PEOPLE cover story. Chambers died hours later at a hospital with burns over 98 percent of her body; her Kia Rio also had been set aflame, with the fire’s intensity bleaching the vehicle’s black exterior white.

Chambers’ clothes were incinerated, and her mother says her contact lenses were seared onto her eyes.

It took 14 months for authorities to indict a suspect, 29-year-old Quinton Tellis, a recent acquaintance of Chambers whose prosecution for murder last October ended in a mistrial when jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Jessica Chambers
The scene of Jessica Chambers’ death in Mississippi
AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Stan Carroll

Daugherty says she prays now that justice for her daughter may yet prevail — a prayer she’ll carry into court Monday, when Tellis goes on trial a second time in the case that is the subject of the six-part docuseries Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers, which continues Saturday night on Oxygen.

Heading back into the courtroom, “there’s actually no way to prepare,” Daugherty, 49, tells PEOPLE. “I’m just taking it day by day, moment by moment.”

Tellis has maintained his innocence in the murder. His defense seized on a key theory: that in her final moments, Chambers tried to identify her attacker with a name that first-responders say they heard as “Eric” or Derek,” neither of which match the accused.

Daugherty believes it’s a false lead.

She says that, based on a prosecution theory, Chambers may have been unconscious when she was driven in her own car to the place where both she and her vehicle were set on fire. A passing motorist later saw the teen stumbling near a ditch and called 911.

Covered in burns and possibly unaware of what had happened, Chambers may have been trying to form another word for the firefighters who reached her.

“What if she thought she had a ‘wreck’?” Daugherty says. “The medical examiner claimed she could not have enunciated anything. There’s no way she made the statement ‘Eric’ did this to me. She was unable to. … How was she supposed to know right then and there that somebody actually did it?”

Even so, she doesn’t blame the community’s volunteer firefighters for reporting what they thought they’d heard.

Quinton Tellis
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Yet as the second trial gets under way, Daugherty hopes jurors instead focus on the prosecution’s timeline that uses phone records to place Chambers and Tellis together around the time of the attack. (He had admitted they were together earlier in the day.)

Daugherty wants jurors — and viewers of the docuseries, which she and other family members participated in — to see past allegations that her daughter intentionally placed herself among a rough crowd prior to her death.

“Nobody ever claimed she was a saint,” she says. “Jessica was just a normal teenager. She wasn’t putting herself in a place or with people to kill her. She loved everybody.”

She objects to suggestions in the media and on the internet that the indictment and trial of Tellis, who is black, stoked racial tensions in their rural community, where the victim and accused both attended the same high school years apart.

“She did not see color,” Daugherty says of her daughter, who was working at a local department store at the time of her death. “She never treated anybody different. It didn’t matter what you’d done, because she wasn’t a judgmental person. Everybody deserved a fair chance even after they’d done their time, and she believed that.”

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“There are stories out there that she did crystal meth. That’s a total lie,” Daugherty says. “I would say she knew who some of the drug dealers in town [were] … just kids who had been in school at that time that were selling drugs big-time that are now in jail for it.”

Ben Chambers, Jessica’s father, who worked as a sheriff’s department mechanic, previously told PEOPLE that she had talked to him about her friends, echoing concerns that they thought she was snitching to him about them.

Jessica Chambers

The resulting insinuations from outsiders “make the town look horrible, when a lot of these kids, they grew up together,” says Daugherty.

Jessica “had a personality out of this world, better than anybody I know around here. Yes, she did the crazy things that all teenagers did, but other than that, she was just a normal happy teenager.”

And despite the long wait, Daugherty says she’s “never lost hope” that Jessica’s killer would be made to answer for what happened.

“I use my faith in God,” she says. “He gives me hope that there will be justice for Jessica. We will find out who did it.”

She says prosecutors have not shared anything with her about how they may present their case the second time around, “which is okay with me,” she says. “But I have hope. I can’t lose hope.”

Tellis, whom authorities have described as a “habitual” criminal offender and who is accused in an unrelated killing in Louisiana to which he has pleaded not guilty, is in a Mississippi prison serving a five-year sentence on an unrelated conviction for burglarizing an unoccupied dwelling, jail records show.

If convicted as charged in the Chambers case, he faces a possible life sentence.

Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers airs Saturdays (7 p.m. ET) through Oct. 13 on Oxygen.