JACKSON — A Mississippi judge on Monday denied an attempt to throw a prosecutor off a murder case in which a man is accused of setting a woman on fire.
Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham ruled Monday that nothing a district attorney had done harmed the legal case of Quinton Tellis, who is accused of setting 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on fire in 2014.
“I have heard no evidence in this case to lead me to believe that there has been any misconduct that would prejudice Mr. Tellis in this case,” Chatham said, ruling from the bench.
Lawyers for Tellis asked Chatham last week to remove District Attorney John Champion, saying he tried to coach testimony against Tellis from another of their clients accused of murder.
But Champion said 19-year-old Jalen Caudle freely offered him a statement that could have provided a more definitive link to the 2014 burning death of Jessica Chambers.
Champion, though, told Chatham he believed the story that Caudle told him was a lie aimed at winning leniency in Caudle’s own capital murder case in DeSoto County. The Horn Lake resident was indicted in connection with a March 2017 shooting in Southaven, and is also charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery and illegal gang activity.
“I don’t think for a second that Quinton would have revealed all these things to a young kid,” Champion testified in a hearing in Sardis over accusations he broke court rules by meeting with Caudle without his lawyer. The hearing was transmitted on the internet by multiple television stations.
Champion said he didn’t violate court rules because he was there to talk to Caudle as a witness against Tellis.
Champion’s story contrasts with testimony Monday by Caudle and claims by the lawyers who represent both Caudle and Tellis in the unrelated cases. The two were housed in the same area of DeSoto County’s jail for a time, although Tellis is alleged to have killed Chambers in Panola County.
Prosecutors say Tellis set Chambers and her car on fire on a rural back road near Courtland on the night of Dec. 6, 2014. Firefighters and law enforcement officers testified at the first trial that they heard Chambers say “Eric” or “Derek” attacked her, although prosecutors presented testimony that Chambers was so burned that she would have been unable to properly pronounce words. Champion said other evidence led to Tellis, but the defendant’s lawyers made Chambers’ words the center of their defense.
“He said he wanted me to get up on the stand and testify that when Q first met Jessica, she called him Eric,” testified Caudle, calling Tellis by his first initial.
Caudle said he felt like Champion was trying to intimidate him.
“There wasn’t too much he told me other than how he could lower my charges if I testified against Q,” the inmate testified, saying Champion promised “he’d give me a lesser charge that would get me home a lot sooner.”
Defense lawyer Alton Peterson also submitted text messages Caudle sent through a jail system urgently telling his father to get defense lawyer Darla Palmer to come meet with him.
Tellis’s first trial ended in a hung jury and he’s scheduled to be retried in September.
Even Champion agreed Caudle’s statement would be a key piece of evidence if true.
“As much as I would like it to be true, I don’t believe that’s the case,” Champion said. “I was not going to put on testimony of that nature.”
Champion said he met with Caudle in April after another man convicted of sexual battery “begged” his own lawyer to go to Champion with statements about Chambers calling Tellis “Eric.”
The prosecutor testified he was suspicious of the timing of the defense challenge because his office had days earlier turned over new witness statements to the defense, including testimony about who drove Tellis from near the crime scene to his sister’s house on the night of the murder. Such a witness would fill in a gap in the prosecution’s case.
Chambers was found walking on the road looking like a “zombie,” according to trial testimony. She had third-degree burns on more than 90 percent of her body when she died at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tellis faces another murder indictment in Louisiana, where he’s accused in the torture death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese graduate student at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
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