COURTLAND, Mississippi — Jury deliberations began Sunday afternoon in the trial of Quinton Tellis, who is accused in the burning death of a Mississippi teenager.
Tellis, 29, did not take the stand in his own defense. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. He’s charged with capital murder because the teen’s death occurred during the commission of another crime, third-degree arson, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
Firefighters responded to a report of a car fire in December 2014 and found Jessica Chambers, 19, on a rural road not far from her home in Courtland, a town of about 500 people in northwest Mississippi.
Her car was burning and she had been set on fire with gasoline, according to investigators with the US Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. She had suffered third-degree burns over 95% of her body.
Eight first responders — firefighters, deputies and EMTs — testified they were at the scene when Chambers said, “Eric set me on fire.” She didn’t give a last name. Chambers died the next day in a Memphis hospital.
The defense keyed on the fact that Chambers didn’t name Tellis.
“She said Eric,” Alton Peterson, one of Tellis’ lawyers, said in closing arguments. “E.R.I.C. Eric.”
But District Attorney John Champion argued the fire injured Chambers so badly she could not pronounce her words clearly and may have been trying to say “Tellis,” the Clarion-Ledger newspaper reported.
The local police, the FBI, and an intelligence expert worked the case for months and looked at all the people named Eric and Derek in the area, authorities said.
The prosecution said it used cellphone technology, texting records, surveillance cameras and interviews to identify Tellis as the suspect.
He’d grown up in Courtland and was arrested in February 2016 while he was an inmate in a Louisiana prison. He was serving a sentence for using the debit card of a woman who had been killed, authorities said. Authorities have said Tellis is the prime suspect in that slaying.
A friend said Tellis and Chambers had known each other about two weeks. At the time of her death, he deleted all communications with Chambers from his phone and stopped checking on her, prosecutors said.
The trial started Monday, October 9. The jury of six whites and six blacks was brought in from another county to hear the case in Panola County, where the slaying occurred.