Jessica Chambers' burn injuries, suspect’s phone in spotlight

Jessica Chambers' burn injuries, suspect’s phone in spotlight
Published: Oct. 12, 2017 at 10:20 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 13, 2017 at 6:13 AM CDT
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Jessica Chambers (Source: WMC Action News 5 Archives)
Jessica Chambers (Source: WMC Action News 5 Archives)

PANOLA CO, MS (WMC) - It was a tough day for jurors and the family of Jessica Chambers as doctors explained the extreme burns the North Mississippi teenager suffered before she died.

The third day of Quinton Tellis' murder trial started with jurors exploring the area where Jessica Chambers was burned alive.

The jurors loaded into the three vans and explored seven different locations Thursday morning. They saw the area where Chambers was found, the M & M convenience store where she was last seen, and where Tellis lived. During the field trips, prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned an investigator about the areas.

After lunch, the trial moved back into the courtroom and featured medical professionals, including Regional Medical Center's burn center director, who said that he didn't think Chambers would've been able to clearly speak to first responders due to the extent of her injuries.

So far, testimony has centered around witness after witness testifying that Chambers was able to say her name and the name of the man who set her on fire, "Eric," despite being horribly burned and nearly inaudible.

Mary Beth Hall, a registered nurse who was on duty when Chambers arrived at the hospital, was the first to testify Thursday.

Hall said she and her attending doctor did not believe Chambers would survive her injuries. Chambers was burned so badly her chest could not expand enough to allow air into her lungs. She was burned on 93 percent of her body.

Hall and the doctor began what they call "comfort care" with Chambers and her family. "Comfort care" is a process where the patient and their family is made as comfortable as possible until the end of the patient's life. Chambers died at 2:36 a.m. hours after she was brought to the hospital.

Prosecutors then called the medical examiner who performed Chambers' autopsy to the stand.

Dr. Erin Barnhart said Chambers was burned over most of her body except her groin, buttocks, back of upper thighs, and bottoms of her feet.

Prosecutors then showed the photos taken during the autopsy and had the medical examiner explain the injuries.

The defense team briefly questioned Barnhart about the pictures.

After Barnhart's testimony, the judge dismissed the jury for an afternoon break.

After the break, Regional Medical Center's burn center director, William Hickerson, testified that the photos that were shown to the jury don't tell the whole story.

In the pictures, parts of Chambers' skin looks unaffected, which Hickerson referred to as misleading.

The skin that looks normal was actually burned so fast, it didn't change color. The skin is so severely burned that the typical color change from the burns happened on deeper layers of skin.

Hickerson said Chambers' skin was burned to the point that it was no longer able to expand enough to allow air into her lungs. He compared it to how leather is made. In that process, the color of the leather may not drastically change, but it will become tough and will not stretch the same way as it had before.

"I've been doing this for over 32 years now, and this is one of the worst you'll see," Hickerson said.

Due to the areas of her body that were spared from the fire, Hickerson believes Chambers was sitting when she was set on fire. He also said she was likely in a closed area--possibly a car--because of the soot and burns she had in her mouth and throat.

Prosecutor John Champion said first responders described Chambers as moving "like a zombie." Hickerson said that made sense, because her skin was burned so badly it was likely tight and difficult to move.

Hickerson said Chambers' burns in and around her mouth, coupled with her tightening skin, would've made it nearly impossible to speak clearly or loudly.

"You just can't enunciate. It won't come out right," Hickerson said.

The defense team cross-examined Hickerson, who agreed that Chambers condition did worsen from the time first responders spoke with her to when she was treated at the hospital.

However, he maintained that her condition would not have worsened so drastically that she would've been able to speak clearly to first responders.

"I still think that what I stated on the front end with regards to her airways and her speech would still be paramount to her communication," Hickerson said. "She could probably still speak, just like she could walk...she could probably speak, but not enunciate well."

Hickerson agreed with the defense attorney that a person who is in shock from these types of injuries may know they're going to die and may be inclined to tell someone who did this to them.

Hickerson also admitted that he was not at the scene and couldn't refute what the first responders said they heard. However, he said he did not believe Chambers would've been able to verbally communicate effectively.

Panola County investigator Barry Thompson, who investigated an estimated 15 people named "Eric" and "Derrick," testified that none of those people were ever developed as a viable suspect.

Thompson said he also questioned Quinton Tellis during the investigation. Tellis said that he and Chambers often drove around town smoking marijuana together. He said they were not in an intimate relationship, but the two had sex once.

FBI agent Dustin Blunt, who questioned Tellis 11 days after Chambers' murder, said Tellis deleted all his phone messages to and from Chambers a couple days after she died.

Tellis told Blunt he saw Chambers the morning of the day she died. He said he went to Batesville in the afternoon to purchase a Greendot card. Surveillance video collaborated Tellis' claims that he was in the store buying the Greendot card.

Tellis said he learned of Chambers' death when he returned to town and went to M & M convenience store.

Blunt said he investigated Tellis' shed and found a five-gallon gas canister. Tellis told Blunt that canister belonged to him.

Blunt then agreed with prosecutors thatTellis never showed any aggression or anger toward Chambers. In fact, he accompanied her to the doctor a few days before her death.

Katheryn Rodgers, a forensic DNA analyst from Scales Biological Laboratory, took the stand next. She was asked to define DNA to help the jury understand the results of the laboratory results.

Rodgers said she analyzed Jessica's keys that had been thrown in a ditch for DNA. She said their lab ran two DNA tests, autosomal (atDNA) and Y-chromosome (Y-DNA.)

She said she found Y chromosomes in the DNA samples on the keys, and she found four individual DNA samples with Y chromosomes on the keys.

Rodgers said the lab was able to obtain a DNA profile and Y chromosome mixture on the keys.

She testified that Quinton Tellis' DNA was found on Jessica's keys.

"Quinton Tellis could not be excluded," Rodgers said.

The trial ended for the day around 7 p.m. and will resume Friday at 9 a.m.


Day 1: Opening statements conclude, Jessica Chambers' mom takes the stand

Day 2: First responders testify to hearing Jessica Chambers say 'Eric' burned her

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