First one jury, then a second, failed to reach a verdict on whether an accused man splashed fuel on Jessica Chambers and caused the 19-year-old former high school cheerleader to die by setting her on fire on a rural Mississippi road in 2014.
Neither convicted nor cleared, the suspect, Quinton Tellis, now sits in jail awaiting trial for an unrelated murder in neighboring Louisiana.
The victim in that case, 34-year-old Meing-Chen Hsiao, was a Taiwanese exchange student who was tortured and stabbed more than 30 times in her apartment in July 2015 by someone allegedly trying to obtain the PIN number to her debit card, according to affidavits obtained by PEOPLE. These affidavits name Tellis as her accused killer. Her decomposing body was not found for 10 days.
Tellis has pleaded not guilty to Hsiao’s murder, just as he and his defense attorney maintained his innocence through the two Chambers trials.
But while Chambers’ family hopes that a third trial in the Chambers case may yet deliver the justice they seek, the Mississippi prosecutor, John Champion, tells PEOPLE that he’s not rushing forward.
“I’m just going to wait and see what happens in Louisiana,” he says.
In November, Champion told WDAM — a TV news station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi — “I thought our case was good, but I feel like their evidence [in Louisiana] is a lot stronger than ours.”
Tellis, 31, already has pleaded guilty and was sentenced for unauthorized use of a Chase Bank debit credit card belonging to Hsiao, reports The News Star. He completed that sentence but remains jailed in Ouachita Parish with a $300,000 bond on the murder charge, the parish district attorney’s office confirms to PEOPLE.
Detectives connected Tellis to Hsiao after finding security footage that showed the two together, according to affidavits obtained by PEOPLE. One of Hsiao’s neighbors gave police a license plate number of a man who gave her a “creepy feeling,” and later identified that man as Tellis, the documents state.
According to the plea deal outlined in court, Tellis admitted to using Hsiao’s debit card without authorization to withdraw at least $1,000.
His next hearing on the murder case is Feb. 18; a trial date has not yet been scheduled.
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In the Chambers case, Tellis emerged as a suspect after investigators learned that he and Chambers were recent acquaintances in small-town Courtland, Mississippi, population 500. Prosecutors alleged that Tellis had pestered Chambers for sex that she repeatedly rebuffed.
They discovered his requests and her rejections in emails he had deleted. Authorities also located phone records that, they alleged, placed the pair together at the approximate time of Chambers’ attack — with Tellis’ DNA on her car keys.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Tellis strangled Jessica after they eventually did have sex, and then he set the blaze believing she was already dead. Authorities said Chambers was soaked in fuel in her car on a rural road, set on fire and then stumbled through a roadside ditch before she was spotted by a passing motorist who called 911. She had burns over 98 percent of her body and was airlifted to a Memphis hospital, where she died from her injuries.
Yet the apparent disconnect over the name loomed large after Tellis was charged with her murder. If Chambers had indeed named her assailant — as Tellis’ defense attorney, Darla Palmer, argued during his first trial — then Tellis could not have been involved, since no one knew him as “Eric” or “Derek.”
Jurors in that first 2017 trial could not reach a decision on his guilt or innocence — an outcome repeated again in 2018 when the second jury, again convened by Judge Gerald Chatham, said it, too, was stuck.
The two mistrials leave the door open for a third attempt to try Tellis for Chambers’ murder, if Champion decides to go forward.
Chambers’ mother, Lisa Chambers, says she hopes he does.
“I am just a mother that is dying every day,” she told Fox13 Memphis. “There has got to be something they can do. They know who killed her … prove it.”
Asked why he thought prosecutors failed to win a conviction in two previous efforts, Champion tells PEOPLE: “I never speculate on why they do what they do.”
He says he has told Chambers’ family that the outcome in Louisiana likely will dictate his next move.
“I mean, he’s as dangerous a criminal as I’ve ever dealt with,” Champion said, reports Jackson, Mississippi, TV news station WLBT. “So it’s very important that either Louisiana get him convicted or we get him convicted.”
He tells PEOPLE: “I just left it with them that we would meet after the Louisiana trial.”