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Retrial begins for man accused in woman’s burning death

BATESVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Prosecutors said Tuesday that evidence will show a man killed a Mississippi woman by setting her on fire, but defense attorneys said prosecutors can’t prove it and that someone else killed her.

Quinton Tellis is being retried on capital murder charges in the death of Jessica Chambers in 2014, after jurors couldn’t reach a verdict in his first trial last year.

Opening statements began Tuesday in Panola County Circuit Court in Batesville in a trial that could last a week. Jurors were selected Monday in Starkville more than 120 miles away because of pretrial publicity.

The defense emphasized that multiple emergency workers heard the dying Chambers say someone named “Eric” attacked her, calling the prosecution’s evidence “speculation” or “unreliable.” Defense attorney Darla Palmer urged jurors to disregard evidence about cellphone locations that she said can’t prove Tellis and Chambers were in exactly the same place.

“This evidence is always going to show, it’s always going to say Eric did it, no matter what the state does to diminish that, and we would ask that you find Quinton not guilty,” Palmer said.

The Eric testimony was a cornerstone of the defense in the first trial and prosecutors went after it almost immediately, calling a speech pathologist who testified that Chambers would have lost her ability to speak clearly within minutes of being burned because of injuries to her tongue and lips.

“There is no way she could have produced an articulate sound soon after this inflammation started, this burn started,” testified Carolyn Wiles Higdon.

Higdon said Chambers could have made sounds, but wouldn’t have been able to control them or pronounce consonants, testifying that it would have been impossible for her to say “Eric.”

Defense attorneys urged jurors to trust that testimony — a foundation of their arguments in the first trial.

“She walked and she talked that evening,” Palmer said.

Prosecutors said cellphone locations, video, DNA on a keychain and Tellis’ statements link him to Chambers’ death. A new witness may testify she picked up Tellis that night near where Chambers, who was 19, was burned.

“Once you hear all the evidence the state offers, you’re going to have plenty of evidence to convict him of capital murder,” Panola County Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale told jurors.

Hale said investigators had interviewed many people named Eric or Derek but none “were ever found to be viable suspects in this crime.” Palmer disputed that point, saying evidence would show investigators “did not check every viable lead.”

Hale said that after the inquiry reached a dead end, investigators re-examined Tellis who had been an early suspect. Hale said investigators focused on him after he changed his story and admitted he had been with Chambers later on the Saturday of her death.

“Quinton Tellis had not been truthful to investigators,” Hale said.

Tellis faces another murder indictment in the 2015 stabbing death of Meing-Chen Hsiao in Monroe, Louisiana. He’s already pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of her debit card. The 29-year-old Tellis is currently serving a prison sentence in Mississippi on an unrelated burglary charge.