Neither side could call it a win or a loss, but Monday's mistrial in the Jessica Chambers' homicide case left everyone at what felt like square one.
Panola County District Attorney John Champion says the accused, Quinton Verdell Tellis, will face trial again.
"I firmly believe in my case. I have no trepidation, no concerns about going forward with it again, and we’ll have to see what happens," he said. "As far as a bounce back strategy, we’ll go forward with the exact same strategy we did with the grand jury and in the first trial."
Tellis was charged with capital murder in the 2014 burning death of Chambers, a 19-year-old from Courtland who was found with third-degree burns over more than 90 percent of her body. The jury, after a week of testimony, voted 7-5 in favor of guilt, and Judge Gerald Chatham declared a mistrial.
Tellis has also been charged with murder in the death of a Monroe, Louisiana, woman. Champion said he'll be speaking with prosecutors there this week to decide on a strategy for going forward.
Defense ready for another jury
Tellis' attorney, Alton Peterson, says he's also ready to get back in front of a jury when the time comes. Like Champion, he said he has been confident in the foundation of his case from the beginning. He said there are facts in his client's favor that won't change, such as that 10 first responders testified Chambers' dying declaration is that someone named "Eric" set her on fire.
"Normally when you have several people who perceive a set of events, there are different facets, they all saw something or perceived something differently," Peterson said. "In this case, there are 10 people who heard her say the same exact thing. And for them to try to make the argument that they all heard it wrong is preposterous."
Both sides said they will go back to the drawing board to strengthen the delivery on points they feel struck wrong with the jury. For Peterson, one of those things is that Tellis spoke with law enforcement five times without legal representation, and the jury saw video of three of those in which Tellis changed his story about the night of Chambers' death multiple times.
"I believe that Quinton’s dilemma is in large part created by his willingness to try and cooperate with law enforcement," Peterson said. "I think ultimately when it came down to his trial, they tried to make his willingness to cooperate seem like he thought he was some mastermind criminal who believed he could outsmart them, as opposed to being someone with nothing to hide."
Peterson also said one thing he and defense attorney Darla Palmer may attack differently is the discussion of why Tellis' story changed so much. Peterson contends Tellis had only been out of prison for about two months at the time Chambers was killed, and that he did not want to go back. For that reason, Peterson said, Tellis was afraid to be entirely forthcoming about the day Chambers died because he didn't want to seem suspicious.
"He was really concerned about going back. And these people, he tried not to get on their bad side and wanted not to have anything to hide out of a fear of going back to jail," Peterson said. "Some of it was that, some was not remembering, some was being afraid to be as candid as he could have been."
Peterson also said the defense will work harder to debunk the timeline presented by the state that appeared to show Tellis and Chambers in the same areas at the same time leading up to her death.
"I just don’t believe in that science. I believe it’s helpful, but the state says they can put someone in my conference room on the phone at 2:42 p.m., and I think some jurors bought that," he said.
‘None of our facts are contradicted’
Champion and the rest of the prosecution stand behind the strength of the phone data and video evidence, saying it showed patterns of where Chambers and Tellis were traveling in the same direction, and then corroborated it with Tellis' interview testimony.
"If you'll look at this case, none of our facts are contradicted," Champion said. "They didn't produce an expert to contradict any of our phone data. They put their defense in through our witnesses... I felt like we put on a very compelling phone data and video evidence case. His statements and the number of lies that he told I felt would overcome the 'Eric' and 'Derek' thing."
"And what are the chances in 4 or less minutes that she leaves Quinton Tellis' house and gets with someone else? It's just not feasible," Champion said.
Champion said a portion of his strategy going forward could come from Chambers' family members who were in the courtroom through the trial.
"I told them yesterday I know the tremendous emotional charge they had because they heard not guilty. You can only imagine the emotional letdown then when the jury was polled, there were more people on the jury saying he was guilty than not guilty," Champion said.
"When I met with them, they were upbeat about where we were at that time, but certainly disappointed not to have a guilty verdict. I’ll ask them for suggestions. They might have ideas from the layperson’s standpoint on what we can do to strengthen the case."
New trial date? Too soon to tell
The case was emotionally exhausting not just for the families of Chambers and Tellis, but for those on both sides of the court case. Both indicated that they won't jump right back into it. They'll take a cool-down period to regroup before setting anything in stone.
"We’re going to wait a couple of weeks until we can sit down as a team and kinda go back over everything and have some time for reflection," Champion said.
As far as whether the case will definitely see a courtroom round two, Peterson said the decision to consider any deviation from the current plan to go forward will be up to Tellis.
"I never say what will or won’t happen, but that decision is up to Quinton. We’re going to advise him as best we can of what the possibilities are if he does this as opposed to that, and if he says, 'I’m not pleading guilty to something I didn’t do,' I don’t have a problem standing in front of a jury and doing this again," Peterson said. "His decision is the only one that really matters."
Champion said the case could go back to trial in the summer, but it's too early to tell.
"We've got to get with the judge and the defense lawyers to see what their schedules are like," Champion said.