PEOPLE Explains: Jessica Chambers’ Alleged Murderer Goes on Trial Again

The murder still startles with its brutality.

On a back road of Courtland, Mississippi, after sundown on Dec. 6, 2014, someone splashed an accelerant on Jessica Chambers and set both her and her black 2005 Kia Rio aflame. The 19-year-old former high school cheerleader, who was then working at a local department store, died hours after authorities discovered her walking near the vehicle with burns over 98 percent of her body.

Among her final words were those presumed to identify her attacker.

After months of investigation, prosecutors built their case against Quinton Tellis, now 29, a recent acquaintance of Chambers who had grown up in her neighborhood and attended her same high school years earlier.

The prosecution claimed phone records placed the two together before Chambers died and Tellis had admitted to police that they were together that day.

In alleging a motive, authorities said recovered text messages between the two showed that on the day she was attacked, Chambers had rejected Tellis’ requests for sex four times, reported TV station WMC.

In court last year, prosecutor John Champion argued that Tellis and Chambers eventually had sex that December night, after which he tried to suffocate her before setting her and her vehicle on fire, believing she was already dead.

But jurors who weighed the allegations — including the claim that several first-responders heard Chambers utter a name that sounded like “Eric” or “Derek,” neither of which fit the accused — were divided over guilt or innocence when Tellis was tried for capital murder last fall.

With the jury unable to reach a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial.

Tellis will go back on trial on Sept. 24 in a courtroom in Batesville, Mississippi, where the first trial unfolded 11 months ago.

He has maintained his innocence.

As the retrial moves forward, the identity of “Eric” has remained front and center.

Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham cleared Champion, the local district attorney, of misconduct after he was accused by the defense of coaching a potential witness to say that Chambers called Tellis by that name, according to the Commercial Appeal. Defense attorney Darla Palmer has appealed that decision.

If convicted of murder in the Chambers case, Tellis faces life in prison without parole.

The grisly mystery of who attacked the teenager lasted for more than a year — underscoring anxieties about a killer possibly hiding in the community and drawing scrutiny to the rough crowd with whom Chambers spent time, as local drug dealers and her exes were questioned.

Among the national headlines the case made was a PEOPLE cover story in January 2016.

After an extensive investigation, Tellis was indicted in February 2016. Authorities had zeroed in on the phone records that they alleged placed him with Chambers at the approximate time of her attack, with Tellis’ DNA on her car keys.

Defense attorney Palmer reportedly said Tellis was several miles away at a store purchasing a pre-paid debit card. She further argued that Chambers’ apparent identification of her attacker as “Eric” cleared her client, because neither Chambers nor the person who had introduced her and Tellis knew Tellis by that name, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

In turn, the prosecution called burn expert Dr. William Hickerson, who testified that injuries to Chambers’ mouth and tongue were so severe that she likely would not have been able to pronounce words correctly. (Chambers was unable to provide responders with more than a first name.)

Even so, the district attorney told jurors that investigators had considered and ruled out several Erics and Dereks before charges were filed against Tellis, whom authorities have described as a “habitual” criminal offender and who is accused in an unrelated killing in Louisiana.

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The conclusion of his first trial last October had its own drama, as the jury initially filed into the courtroom to announce its verdict only to be short-circuited by one juror who said the unannounced decision was not unanimous, as required.

Judge Chatham, who oversaw that trial and will preside over the retrial, then sent the jurors back for further deliberations — and when they returned a second time, a verdict of not-guilty was announced.

But when Chatham polled jurors individually, several said they had voted “guilty.”

That led the judge to send the divided panel back a second time for further deliberations, and then again a third time, before he acknowledged they were “hopelessly deadlocked.”

Prosecutors quickly announced their intention to retry Tellis, who did not take the stand in his defense.

During police questioning, prosecutor Champion said, Tellis repeatedly changed his account of his whereabouts and activities on the day Chambers was attacked. Prosecutors further alleged that Tellis deleted all evidence of Chambers from his phone to distance himself from her.

“She had a life full of tomorrows, and she had every right to wake up on the morning of Dec. 7, 2014,” Champion said during his closing argument in the first trial. “Now, three years later, she’d be 22. Would she be married? Would she have kids? That was all taken away from her at 8:04 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2014.”

Tellis currently sits in a Mississippi state prison serving a five-year sentence after an unrelated conviction for burglarizing an unoccupied dwelling, jail records show.

He also is facing a murder charge in Louisiana, where authorities suspect he killed Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old former Taiwanese exchange student found dead in August 2015 with multiple stab wounds, defensive wounds and slicing wounds in her upper back.

Tellis has pleaded not guilty in that case, which is pending the outcome of his trial in Chambers’ death.

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