First responders testify in case of woman burned to death
"Her hair was fried like it had been stuck in a light socket, her face was black and her body was severely burned," former fire chief Cole Haley said
By Ron Maxey
The Commercial Appeal
BATESVILLE, Miss. — It was hard to make out the words of a badly burned Jessica Chambers as she lay dying, but multiple first responders testified Wednesday that it sounded like she said Eric was her killer.
A parade of firefighters and law enforcement personnel took the stand in the first full day of testimony at the capital murder trial of Quinton Tellis. He is accused of setting Chambers, 19, afire along a rural Courtland, Miss., road the evening of Dec. 6, 2014.
By the end of testimony Wednesday, 22 witnesses had testified for the prosecution since testimony began Tuesday afternoon. Most described the chaotic scene they encountered when they received a call about a car fire on Herron Road.
The witnesses testified they found the car ablaze from the inside and a dazed, “zombie-like” figure wearing only underwear emerging from the woods.
The person was subsequently identified as Chambers. Some of the responders said they knew her while others didn’t. Even those who knew her, however, said in often emotional testimony that it was hard to immediately identify her because of her condition.
“She looked like a zombie,” testified Will Turner, a volunteer fire fighter. “Her arms were out, and her hair was fried.”
His comments echoed those of Cole Haley, a former chief of the Courtland Volunteer Fire Department.
"She had her arms out, saying, 'Help me, help me, help me,'" Haley testified Tuesday. "Her hair was fried like it had been stuck in a light socket, her face was black and her body was severely burned."
All the witnesses said Chambers was difficult to understand once they got her on the ground and began questioning her about what had happened. The difficulty was partly because of her injuries— they testified her mouth was charred — and partly from all the noise of rescue equipment surrounding them.
But witness after witness testified that Chambers identified herself by name and, when asked who had done this to her, seemed to say “Eric.” More than a dozen witnesses have identified "Eric" or possibly "Derek" as the name that thought Chambers uttered.
"Yes, m’am, I heard that,” Panola County EMS Director Daniel Cole told defense attorney Darla Palmer when asked if Eric was what Chambers told responders when questioned.
Palmer asked to enter as evidence written statements of the various witnesses, in which they said Chambers seemed to say Eric.
During interviews related to a murder in Louisiana with which Tellis is charged, police questioned a man identified as Eric Hill, who had dated Tellis' sister in Courtland. Prosecutor John Champion said investigators followed multiple leads about people named Eric, but they were all dead ends.
Champion said in opening statements Tuesday that witnesses would change their minds about what the badly burned victim seemed to say once they heard all the evidence.
The prosecution’s case will rely heavily on cell phone data that Champion said will tie Tellis and the victim together throughout Chambers’ final day. Testimony from the final few witnesses Wednesday began the pivot in that direction, focusing on the location of Chambers' burning car and the discovery of her keys near the site.
Jerry King, who lived near the site where Chambers was found, testified about how he found the keys along the road as he was strolling his young daughter. The keys had a tag on them from the business of Jessica Chambers' father, Ben Chambers.
Panola County Deputy Tyler Mills, who responded to the call about the keys, testified how he took possession of the keys and logged them as evidence.
Major Barry Thompson, lead investigator for the Panola County Sheriff's Department, took the stand last on Wednesday to provide a rundown on an aerial map of locations jurors will visit Thursday morning.
Those sites, in addition to the car location, will include the M&M Grocery where security footage last recorded Chambers that evening, as well as Tellis' nearby home.
The field trip will given jurors, from Pike County, the chance to see first-hand the sites Champion said will be tied together by the phone data.
Chambers’ mother and father sat in the front row listening throughout Wednesday morning’s testimony. Father Ben Chambers often had his head in and hands and held a tissue as the events of his daughter’s death were detailed.
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