Second Mistrial Declared in Ex-Cheerleader's Murder — as Suspect Now Faces Trial in Another Death
Jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on the guilt or innocence of Quinton Tellis for the alleged murder of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers
When jurors deliberated a year ago over the fate of accused murderer Quinton Tellis, they could not decide on his guilt or innocence in the killing of Jessica Chambers, a 19-year-old former high school cheerleader who was splashed with fuel and set on fire on a rural Mississippi road in 2014.
On Monday, that outcome was repeated when a new jury that was convened last week to try Tellis a second time told Judge Gerald Chatham that it, too, was stuck, multiple news outlets report.
Chambers was not Tellis’ only alleged victim. He also faces a murder charge in Louisiana, in the slaying of Meing-Chen Hsiao, but the prosecution there had been put on hold pending the outcome of the Chambers case.
Mississippi authorities said they had not yet decided if they would prosecute Tellis a third time but that he would now be returned to Louisiana to face that murder charge.
Tellis has pleaded not guilty in Hsiao’s death. He previously admitted to unlawfully using her credit card.
The failure of the first jury in October 2017 to reach a unanimous verdict caused Judge Chatham, who presided over both trials in Batesville, Mississippi, to send jurors back three times to continue their deliberations before he declared that panel “hopelessly deadlocked” and declared a mistrial.
That set the stage for prosecutors to try again in the second murder trial.
Once more, they laid out their claims that phone records placed Chambers and Tellis together in and around the small town of Courtland, population 500, for much of the day of her attack. They alleged she’d rebuffed prior sexual advances from Tellis, a recent acquaintance, but that the two eventually did have sex before Tellis set Chambers and her vehicle on fire on the night of Dec. 6, 2014.
Chambers died hours later in a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital with burns over 98 percent of her body.
Tellis’ defense attorney, Darla Palmer, countered that “zero evidence” placed Tellis at the scene of the crime, according to WREG. The defense further seized upon a contested allegation of the investigation — that first responders heard Chambers utter a name that sounded like “Eric” or “Derek,” possibly naming her attacker, but that name did not fit Tellis.
As in the first trial, Chambers’ ability to speak in her badly burned state remained the subject of dispute.
During testimony last week, one of the first witnesses for the prosecution was Carolyn Higdon, a speech pathology expert, who said that injuries to Chambers’ mouth and larynx — as revealed in an autopsy — would have restricted her ability to articulate words, WREG reported.
Asked if Chambers would have been able to enunciate “Eric” or “Derek,” Higdon said no.
That allowed prosecutors to move beyond that point and attempt to build their case instead on a detailed timeline, explained to the jury in a 102-slide PowerPoint shared by intelligence analyst Paul Rowlett, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Chambers and Tellis, who grew up in the same area of Courtland and attended the same high school years apart, exchanged phone numbers on Nov. 29, 2014, according to that timeline. Tellis first texted her for sex on Dec. 3. Two days later, on Dec. 5, another text conversation between the two preceded their meeting at the local M&M gas station and mini-mart, where surveillance video showed Tellis walking across the street to Chambers’ car.
On Dec. 6 — the day of the attack — texts, phone calls and video footage showed the two in contact and together off-and-on throughout the day up to 6:48 p.m., when Tellis confirmed they were together, police said.
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But from 6:49 p.m. to 7:26 p.m., during which five women were trying to contact Tellis, who did not respond, neither he nor Chambers were on their phones.
By 7:30 p.m., according to the timeline, Chambers’ cell phone movement had shifted and stopped at the location of Herron Road, where firefighters summoned by a passerby’s 911 call found Chambers and her car burned later that night.
The timeline showed that Tellis — after texting Chambers with the message that he would be meeting with another girlfriend — later allegedly followed a walking path to his sister’s house, along which authorities would recover Chambers’ car keys.
Just before 8 p.m., an unidentified vehicle was seen on surveillance video pulling into Tellis’ driveway to a storage shed, where he allegedly told authorities in one interview that he kept a five-gallon gas can.
Subsequently, a vehicle matching the description of Tellis’ sister’s SUV, which he’d borrowed, was seen on video speeding toward Batesville. At 8:04 p.m., authorities logged the last communication with Chambers’ cell phone, which they said shut off when it got too hot, reports the Clarion-Ledger.
It took 14 months for the prosecution to name Tellis as their suspect in Chambers’ death, and as the second trial got under way her mother, Lisa Daugherty, told PEOPLE that she’d “never lost hope” her daughter’s killer would be brought to justice.
“I use my faith in God,” she said. “He gives me hope that there will be justice for Jessica. We will find out who did it.”
Authorities initially had few clues in the investigation and took months to find and then build a case against the suspect.
The most persistent whisper after Chambers’ death alleged that it was gang-related. While earning As and Bs in high school, Chambers built friendships across all spectrums in the tiny town of Courtland.
More than a few observers interpreted some of those relationships to be trouble. A former boyfriend, Travis Sanford, was in prison on a burglary charge at the time of her murder.
Chambers’ father has said that she shared concerns with him that some in her circle suspected she was “snitching” on them because her dad was a mechanic for the sheriff’s office.
“Nobody ever claimed she was a saint,” said Chambers’ mother. “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.”
In February 2016, District Attorney John Champion announced the indictment of Tellis, whom he identified as a gang member and “habitual offender.”
Prior to that indictment, Champion told PEOPLE in 2015 that the attack on Chambers was “very, very personal. Someone meant to cause her great pain.”
After Monday’s mistrial was declared, Champion said Chambers’ family was “upset” by the lack of a verdict, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
“They wanted resolution just like we all did,” he said.