But Panola County Judge Gerald Chatham on Monday overruled the motion for District Attorney John Champion's recusal, saying he found no evidence that would prejudice Champion against defendant Quinton Tellis.
The lawyer for Tellis asked that Panola County District Attorney John Champion be thrown off the case and punished, and that a September retrial be delayed while the state attorney general’s office takes over the prosecution.
But he case will now proceed Sept. 24.
Tellis is accused of killing 19-year-old Jessica Chambers in 2014.
Tellis’ first trial ended in October in a hung jury. Attorney Darla Palmer alleges in papers filed Thursday that Champion met with another of her clients, Jalen Asir Matthews Caudle, without her permission in April. Palmer told The Associated Press Tuesday that Caudle met Tellis when both were jailed together in DeSoto County and that Caudle became her client after Tellis referred him.
In a sworn statement, the 19-year-old Caudle said that Champion tried to “guide” him into saying Quinton Tellis had told him that Chambers had called Tellis “Eric.”
“It’s clear to me these are violations of what our rules are and just in terms of what a lawyer should stand for in terms of honesty and integrity and justice,” Palmer said of Champion’s actions.
Prosecutors say Tellis set Chambers and her car on fire on a rural back road near Courtland on the night of Dec. 6, 2014. Firefighters and law enforcement officers testified at the first trial that they heard Chambers say “Eric” or “Derek” attacked her, although prosecutors presented testimony that Chambers was so burned that she would have been unable to properly pronounce words. Champion said other evidence led to Tellis, but the defendant’s lawyers made Chambers’ words the center of their case.
“‘Eric’ is not on trial today, but ladies and gentlemen, he should be,” Palmer told the jury in closing arguments.
Caudle, a Horn Lake resident, was indicted on capital murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and gang charges in relation to a March 2017 shooting in Southaven. He was one of five people initially charged.
Caudle said he was brought to meet with Champion at the DeSoto County jail on April 5 and that Champion stated that he could “drop your charges a lot, a whole lot, something to where you can get home a lot sooner” and then asked Caudle “Is there anything you want to tell me about Quinton’s case?”
Later, Caudle said Champion said “Jalen, what about this. Quinton’s nickname was Eric, right?”
Caudle said he didn’t know, but said Champion continued to try to “guide me into saying stuff,” saying “OK, let me help you out. Quinton told you that Jessica called him Eric, right?”
Caudle also said Champion urged him to drop Palmer as his attorney. “I know a public defender,” Caudle recounted that Champion said. “He is a friend of mine. If you help me, then I promise I won’t send you away for life.”
Chambers was found walking on the road looking like a “zombie,” according to trial testimony. She had third-degree burns on more than 90 percent of her body when she died at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Courtland. The horrific circumstances surrounding Chambers’ death garnered national attention.
Champion said investigators searched for people named Eric or Derek, but ultimately concluded the evidence led to Tellis, including an analysis of the locations of Tellis’ cellphone and Chambers’ cellphone on the day of her death. Tellis has told investigators he does not know who killed Chambers, and denies prosecutors’ claims that he had sex with her. He admitted after first denying it that they were together for a time on the evening of her death.
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.