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Prosecutor Tells Jurors How Jessica Chambers Was Burned Alive During Opening Statement


The state’s opening statements in the Jessica Chambers murder trial are complete. Quinton Tellis is facing capital murder charges — though prosecutors have declined to seek the death penalty — over her murder.

Prosecutor John Champion described Chambers as a “beautiful, blonde-haired, 19-year-old.”

Champion said Chambers and Tellis were friends for about two weeks.  Chambers was trying to text another friend, Kesha Myers, with whom she was planning to spend time. Chambers couldn’t reach Kesha, however, because the pre-paid phone Myers used had run out of minutes and data, Champion said.

Champion argued that at this point, Chambers and Tellis started “riding around” and eventually went to Taco Bell to get food. Chambers and Tellis wound up back at the defendant’s house. Tellis claimed they were in his driveway, but Champion says the cell data indicates they were really in an area south of his house at around 6:30 p.m. Chambers made one call to her mother around 6:45 p.m.

At 7:26, a set of headlights left the defendant’s driveway area and headed south on Highway 51. At the same time, Jessica’s phone began to move in the same direction. Less than a mile away from the defendant’s residence, Champion said that the defendant and Chambers turned west onto Main Street and eventually into an area that leads towards a set of hunting camps.

That’s where, at around 8:04 or 8:06 p.m., a man called the local 911 center to report a car on fire.

Champion, the prosecutor, said first responders got “freaked out” when a girl walked toward them wearing nothing but panties. She had been “severely burned.”  They put her down on the ground, began to cover her up, and other first responders continued to arrive.

There, first responders believe Chambers uttered the name “Eric” or “Derrick.” Champion said that due to the “horrific pain” Chambers was in, she wasn’t able to properly pronounce the name of her attacker. Chambers was burned over 93% of her body, the prosecutor said, and her esophagus was lined with soot.

The doctors knew the burns would be fatal, Champion said. Chambers arrived at a Memphis burn unit just after 11 p.m. on December 6th and died around 2:30 a.m. on December 7th, he said.

A very small piece of Chamber’s bra tested positive at an ATF lab for gasoline, which prosecutors believe was the accelerant used to set both Chambers and her car on fire.

Then, about an eighth of a mile from the burn area, a passerby found Chambers’ car keys. The keys tested positive for the defendant’s DNA, Champion told the jury.

When initially questioned about what happened, the defendant claimed he had been with Jessica Chambers the morning of the day she was set on fire, but later had gone to buy a money transfer card known as a “Green Dot Card.” He said he was going to be sending money to his girlfriend in Monroe, Louisiana.

Later, under FBI questioning, Tellis admitted to having sex with Chambers shortly before her death in an area near his home where cell phone tower records can place both the victim’s and the defendant’s phones. Tellis said the sex occurred in the passenger seat of the victim’s car, which was placed in a “laid back” position. The victim’s burned car was later found with the passenger seat in such a position, Champion told the jury. Tellis also told the FBI he kept a five-gallon can of gasoline in a shed at his house.

Champion said authorities followed other leads to Iowa, Chattanooga, and other locations, but all of them “fizzled out,” leaving the defendant as the prime suspect.

Eventually armed with new cell phone data, authorities re-approached Tellis after he had moved to Louisiana and married his girlfriend. Tellis hadn’t told authorities all of the details of his contact with Chambers the day she was burned, Champion told the jury.

Tellis then copped a series of alibis and excuses which never panned out, Champion said. The three alibi witnesses Tellis provided all said they were not with him around the time Chambers was burned.

Champion said that around the time Chambers was set on fire, the defendant’s phone switched over to a different tower, and his car was seen leaving at a high rate of speed.

Though the state is not required to prove intent under Mississippi capital murder law, Champion wafted the theory that Tellis was “constantly asking her for sex, and she is constantly turning him down.”

Chambers was found wearing nothing but underwear December 6th, with temperatures in the 40s, Champion said, and then went so far as to state, “I think he suffocated her.” That statement appeared from its context to be a theory that cannot be backed up by any available evidence.

Champion, the prosecutor, said he believes that after Chambers left the Tellis house, Tellis borrowed his sister’s car, got his gas can, drove to the scene, poured gas in the Chambers car, lit it on fire, and then drove to Batesville, Mississippi to purchase the “Green Dot” cash card he was planning to send to his girlfriend in Louisiana.

Champion again repeated that Tillis’s phone was off, but became active again around 7:42 p.m. when he called the victim. She had left his house at 7:26, but at 7:42, he texted her something along the lines of, “hey honey I can’t be with you tonight, my girl’s coming up.” Then, Champion said, for the first time, Tellis called his girlfriend in Louisiana. His phone then went dead again. “How in the world did he know his girl was coming up [from Louisiana] if he didn’t talk to her before then?” Champion asked rhetorically. The text to Chambers “was an alibi text,” Champion believes, and an attempt “to throw the police off.”

Champion then discussed his 25 years of experience trying cases and thanked the jury for serving. He said the state was “not hiding anything,” that the defendant “deserves a fair trial,” and then said the defense “has been extremely cooperative with us.”

He concluded his approximately hour-long opening statement by saying it was simply not feasible for Chambers to leave Tellis’s company and then, within four minutes, getting together with someone else.

Defense attorney Darla Palmer’s opening statements were brief.

She acknowledged that the crime, a burning death, was “horrible,” but that the evidence does not point to the defendant. At least eight first responders talked to Chambers at the scene of the burning. She was able to clearly identify herself, clearly indicated that someone set her on fire, and stated a name:  “Eric set me on fire.”  Palmer told the jury that Chambers didn’t say another name.  “Eric did this to me,” Palmer repeated. Chambers also said she didn’t know her attacker’s last name. She did know Quinton’s last name was Tellis, but did not state it to first responders when she was still alive.

Palmer, the defense attorney, went on to say that cell phone records, which the state says tie the victim and the defendant together, cannot pinpoint a person’s location.

Perhaps most crucially, the defense says that the “Green Dot” card purchased by the defendant was bought at 7:53 or 7:58 p.m., the very time prosecutors claim Tillis was setting Chambers on fire. (The car fire was reported just minutes later, at 8:04 or 8:06, according to prosecutors.)

Palmer concluded by saying that the case is “full of reasonable doubt” and that Chambers, the victim, did not name Quinton Tellis, the defendant, after she was burned.

LawNewz Network is streaming this trial live. You can watch here. 

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.