BATESVILLE, Miss. — Opening statements and the first day of emotional witness testimony wrapped up Tuesday in the Jessica Chambers murder trial.
The trial started about an hour late for reasons that were not stated in court.
Quinton Tellis, 29, faces life in prison if convicted in the 19-year-old’s death by burning nearly three years ago in Courtland, Mississippi, but has maintained his innocence in the case.
Tellis appeared to wipe away tears from his eyes just moments before District Attorney John Champion began his opening statements.
Several family members of Jessica Chambers sat in the gallery listening. Some appeared very stoic while others kept their heads down.
Champion said Chambers and Tellis only knew each other for a few weeks before she was killed.
On Tuesday, nearly three years after the horrendous crime that has haunted the small community of Courtland, MS., Champion laid out the state’s case.
He said Tellis continually reached out to Chambers because he wanted to have a sexual relationship with her and Chambers denied his advances.
He said multiple times when Tellis was questioned after Chambers’ death he changed his story about not being with her at all, saying
he was getting a Green Dot card in Batesville, a short ways from Courtland, where Jessica was killed. He also said Tellis listed false witnesses — when the witnesses were questioned said they never saw Tellis at all.
However Champion told the jury after several months investigators were able to nail down cellphone records that put the two together.
Champion also stated the two are on surveillance video and that Tellis faked an alibi by calling and texting Chambers after her car was set on fire and calling another woman.
Champion mentioned numerous times Tellis told investigators he had sex with Chambers in the passenger seat of her car, with the seat laid back.
When her burned up car was discovered the passenger seat was laid back.
“I think he suffocated her,” Champion said. “And thought he had killed her. And that he had to get her away from his house. He wanted sex, you’ll see the text messages where he wanted her.”
Champion believes Tellis realized she was still alive. He says Tellis then drove Chambers’ car with her inside down the back Courtland road, got in his sister’s car, grabbed gasoline and torched Chambers’ car. Along the way he dropped her car keys.
Champion says Tellis’ DNA was discovered on her car keys.
Defense attorney Darla Palmer countered:
“Records that were subpoenaed or found by the state indicate that the very time frame that Quinton Tellis was supposed to have been committing this crime he was actually in the story, I believe at 7:53 or 7:58.”
She also told the jury their witnesses will prove “this case is full of reasonable doubt.”
A key part of this trial is what Chambers told first responders when they showed up to the awful scene and saw her with burns to 93 percent of her body.
Responders said the saw her emerge from the woods wearing only underwear.
When they asked her a name or who did this to her, they heard her say, “Eric.” Champion makes the case Chambers’ throat and mouth were burned so badly it would be impossible for her to correctly say a name.
The defense jumped on this, saying, “She did not say Quinton Tellis, when asked who burned her.”
Cole Haley, the former fire chief for the Courtland Fire Department testified that when he first saw Jessica she was pleading for help.
Haley said he held her hand, and she asked for water.
Several people in the courtroom gallery wiped their eyes as they listened to Haley’s testimony. He said he was able to tell him she was set on fire.
Lisa Chambers, Jessica’s mother, also took the witness stand.
When shown a picture of her daughter she identified her as, “My baby.”
Clutching tissues she talked about the last time she talked to her daughter on the phone around 6:48 p.m. on December 6, 2014.
“It was just kinda, very quiet, you couldn’t hear the wind blowing. You couldn’t hear any music. It was just her. Just hear her voice.”
Chambers said she took it to mean someone was with her daughter. She said there was usually commotion in the background.
Lisa Chambers said a few hours later she got a call Jessica was badly burned at a Memphis hospital. She said she was able to make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye before her daughter died.
The jury also heard from Jessica’s best friend Kesha Myers, who said she was with Chambers and Tellis the morning of December 6. She said she saw them hug and testified, “It seemed like he wouldn’t let her go.”
The state told the jury, in a capital murder case, the state is not required to prove Tellis intended to kill.
Authorities have said about 20,000 telephone numbers were analyzed as part of the investigation. About 40 people are listed in court documents as potential witnesses in the trial, including representatives from two cellphone companies.However, Champion said he might only call 35 people on the list.
On Monday, a jury from Pike County in southwest Mississippi was officially seated. The jury — seven men and five women — was pulled from outside the area due to the massive pre-trial coverage of the case.
In December 2014, Chambers was discovered beside her burning car on a rural Panola County road with severe burns to 98 percent to her body. Authorities said Tellis doused Chambers and then set her on fire, leading to her death several hours later at a Memphis hospital.