For the second time, a jury has failed to reach a verdict in the case of a Mississippi teenager who was burned to death four years ago.
Panola County Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham declared a mistrial Monday when the jury could not reach a decision after nearly 12 hours of deliberations, according to CNN affiliate WREG.
Quinton Tellis, 29, had been charged with capital murder because 19-year-old Jessica Chambers’ death occurred during the commission of another crime: third-degree arson. He pleaded not guilty. Tellis’ attorney could not be immediately reached on Monday.
ATF: Teenager was set on fire with gasoline
Chambers had left her mother’s house in pajama pants on December 6, 2014, reportedly to clean her car. Later, firefighters responded to a report of a car fire and found her in the burning car on a rural road near her home in Courtland, a northwest Mississippi town of about 500 people in Panola County.
Chambers was set on fire with gasoline, said investigators with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
She suffered third-degree burns over 95% of her body.
During the trial, eight first responders, including firefighters, testified they were at the scene when Chambers said, “Eric set me on fire.” She didn’t give a last name.
Chambers died the next day in a Memphis hospital.
Prosecutors: Tellis deleted phone communication with teen
Local police, the FBI and an intelligence expert worked the case for months and looked at all people named Eric in the area after Chambers’ death, authorities said.
The prosecution said it used cellphone technology, text records, surveillance cameras and interviews to identify Tellis as a suspect.
Tellis, who grew up in Courtland, had known Chambers for about two weeks, a friend said.
At the time of Chambers’ death, Tellis had deleted all communications with her from his phone and stopped checking on her, prosecutors said.
Tellis was arrested in February 2016 while he was an inmate in a Louisiana prison being held on an unrelated charge.
In the first trial, the defense focused on the fact that Chambers didn’t name their client.
“She said Eric,” Alton Peterson, one of Tellis’ lawyers, said in closing arguments. “E.R.I.C. Eric.”
But District Attorney John Champion argued that the fire injured Chambers so severely that she could not pronounce words clearly, and she may have been trying to say “Tellis,” the Clarion-Ledger newspaper reported.
There appeared to be confusion among the six African-American and six white jurors before the judge declared the mistrial. The jury said it had reached a verdict and the court clerk read the not-guilty verdict recorded on a piece of paper. But at the prosecution’s request, the judge polled the jury, and most jurors said their vote was guilty.
The judge reread the instructions. More than an hour later, the jury said it was deadlocked and couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict after about nine hours of deliberation.
Champion said afterward that he didn’t consider the mistrial a loss.
“I’ve had hung juries many times … and on the retrials we’ve come back and been successful on them. Some we have not,” he told reporters. “You do this as long as I’ve done it, you’re going to have days like this.”