Jurors see interview videos of man accused in burning death

Defense attorneys Darla Palmer, right, and Alton Peterson, left, converse with defendant Quinton Tellis during Tellis' retrial, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, in Batesville, Miss. Tellis is accused of killing Jessica Chambers near a small Mississippi town in 2014. A jury couldn't reach a verdict in Tellis' first trial last year. (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool)

BATESVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Prosecutors on Friday played hours of interrogation videos in the trial of a man charged with burning a Mississippi woman to death, trying to show jurors how he repeatedly changed his story as he was confronted with contradictory evidence.

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

Prosecutors showed videos from at least three different questionings of Tellis in 2015 and 2016, local news outlets report. He was jailed during that time in Monroe, Louisiana, in relation to the stabbing death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, an international student from Taiwan. Tellis is also indicted for murder in her death and has already pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of her debit card.

Agent Scott Meadows of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified that Tellis emerged as a serious suspect after cellphone records began connecting his and Chambers’ locations on the evening she died.

Tellis at first denied being with Chambers at any point during the evening.

“He swore on his momma he wasn’t with Jessica,” Meadows testified.

After investigators told him that his and Chambers’ cellphones both traveled 5 miles (8 kilometers) from their hometown of Courtland to Batesville, he said he had met Chambers at a Taco Bell in Batesville.

But Tellis then told them he had borrowed a truck belonging to his friend, Michael “Big Mike” Sanford. Finally, when investigators told Tellis they knew Sanford and his truck had been at a football game in Nashville, Tennessee, that night, he admitted he rode with Chambers.

That put Tellis with Chambers up until about 6:30 p.m. on the night of her death. Investigators say both their cell phones then went silent for an hour after returning to Courtland. Prosecutors believe Tellis and Chambers had sex in her car on a rural backroad, leaving her unconscious. They contend Tellis then went and retrieved a gasoline can, lighting Chambers and her car on fire. She was found burned alive, staggering away from the burning car just after 8 p.m.

Video was also played Friday with Tellis discussing burns on his arms and bottom. He told investigators those burns came in a game where he and friend were jumping over a fire.

“At the end, like I just fell back in the fire and they pulled me up,” he said, although he couldn’t remember when he was burned.

Also discussed was surveillance video showing a vehicle arriving at Tellis’ house about 7:50 p.m. and someone getting something from a shed where he later told investigators he had a gas can. The vehicle then leaves in the direction of where Chambers’ car was found, only minutes before the fire was reported.

Tellis denies killing Chambers.

“It’s never been on my heart to kill somebody,” Tellis told investigators in a 2015 interview. “If I ever found any news of somebody who killed her, I’d tell you.”

His defense attorneys note 10 emergency workers testified they heard a badly burned Chambers tell them someone named Eric attacked her, claiming prosecutors have the wrong man on trial. However, two experts have testified for the prosecution that Chambers, although she could make sound, was so badly burned that that she couldn’t clearly pronounce words.

Also Friday, a forensic DNA analyst testified about DNA present on Chambers’ keys. Kathryn Rodgers said male DNA present could belong to Tellis, though she can exclude 99.7 percent of men.

“‘He cannot be excluded’ does not mean his DNA was definitely on the keys,” Rodgers said. “He just can’t be ruled out as a possible contributor.”

Rodgers testified that a first round of tests, autosomal chromosomal testing, found at least four people’s DNA on the keys but that Tellis was excluded from the mix.

Testimony continues Saturday.

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