Jury selection began Monday in the trial of a man accused of dousing a 19-year-old former high school cheerleader with a flammable liquid, setting her ablaze and leaving her to die along a north Mississippi back road.
Quinton Tellis, 29, has been charged with the murder of Jessica Chambers on Dec. 6, 2014, and faces life in prison without parole if convicted. Tellis has pleaded not guilty.
Opening arguments and testimony are expected to begin Tuesday morning, with prosecutors expecting to call more than 40 witnesses in a trial that could last up to two weeks, the Commercial-Appeal reported.
Firefighters in Courtland, Miss., found Chambers beside her burning car on a remote road near a tree farm. Chambers was quickly taken to a Memphis hospital, about 60 miles to the north, with burns over 98 percent of her body. She died hours later.
District Attorney John Champion of Panola County said that he believed it was a “personal crime” as Tellis and Chambers knew each other, and not related to drug or gang activity, even though 17 suspected gang members were arrested as a result of the investigation. The prosecutor has not revealed to reporters what Chambers told firefighters when they found her.
Investigators were stymied early on because they received no information from “street sources,” leading them to theorize that the killing was committed by one person who told no one what happened, Champion had said.
Surveillance video showed Jessica Chambers at a gas station less than two hours before she was found. Wearing a sweater and pajama pants that looked like sweatpants, she put $14 worth of gas in her car, more than the $5 or so she usually purchased, Ali Fadhel, a clerk at the gas station, told The Associated Press in the days after Chambers’ death.
“I asked her, ‘Why are you putting so much gas?’ She said, ‘I’m going somewhere,’” Fadhel said.
On her way out, Chambers got a call on her cellphone, Fadhel said.
Authorities have said about 20,000 telephone numbers were analyzed as part of the investigation, more than 150 people were questioned and investigators traveled to Iowa and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Relatives have described Chambers as friendly and outgoing. She had been a cheerleader and softball player at South Panola High School.
Chambers’ mother, Lisa, has said her daughter liked to smile and playfully stick out her tongue at people. She was trusting of others, making her mother wonder if her outgoing personality had gotten her into trouble.
“She didn’t think anybody could harm her or would want to,” Lisa Chambers has said.
But as the trial approached, Lisa Chambers declined to discuss the case. She has told reporters she spoke with her daughter by phone about an hour before she was found.
When Tellis was indicted, Champion said, investigators worked to figure out where the victim was between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. the day she was burned and they had “absolutely filled that hour in.” The 19-year-old was found shortly after 8 p.m. that night.
Tellis has prior convictions for burglary and fleeing police. He was released from prison in October 2014 — two months before Chambers’ killing.
Tellis faces another murder indictment in Louisiana, where he’s accused in the torture death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. That indictment alleges that Tellis probably stabbed Hsiao more than 30 times in her face and body with a knife to get her to reveal her debit card’s PIN number before killing her on July 29, 2015. He was extradited to Mississippi from Louisiana in June after pleading guilty to fraudulent use of Hsiao’s card.
Area resident Beth Brasher, 40, said she knows Tellis and says he “comes from a good family.” Asked about the Chambers case, she said she believes Tellis is wrongly accused, but acknowledged the crime “tore up” the community.
“That girl died a horrible, horrendous death that she didn’t deserve,” Brasher said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.