BATESVILLE, Miss. — A severely burned Mississippi woman told firefighters before she died that someone named Eric set her on fire, several of the firefighters testified Wednesday.
The firefighters and paramedics testified in the trial of Quinton Tellis in Batesville, Mississippi, about 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.
Tellis has pleaded not guilty to capital murder in the death of the 19-year-old Jessica Chambers, who authorities said was found with burns on 93 percent of her body on Dec. 6, 2014, in Courtland, Mississippi. She died hours later. Prosecutors say Tellis set Chambers and her car on fire in a rural back road and left her to die.
Defense attorney Darla Palmer maintained in opening statements Tuesday that Tellis has been falsely accused, and that Chambers' dying statement to firefighters shows the killer was someone else.
The horrific circumstances surrounding the former high school cheerleader's death garnered national attention. The trial has been emotional, with witnesses breaking down on the stand and spectators crying when jurors were shown graphic photos of Chambers' burned stomach and face.
Citing statements Tellis made to investigators, prosecutor John Champion said in his opening statement that Tellis and Chambers had sex in her car the evening she was found burned. Champion said he believes Tellis suffocated Chambers and thought he had killed her.
Tellis then drove Chambers' car with her inside it to the back road, ran to his sister's house nearby, jumped in his sisters' car, stopped to pick up gasoline from a shed at his house and torched Chambers' car and her, Champion said.
Firefighters who responded to the scene wrapped Chambers in blankets to keep her warm. She was wearing nothing but underwear when she was found, and she had trouble saying more than a few words at a time, firefighters said.
One of the first firefighters on the scene, Daniel Cole, said Chambers had soot around her nose and mouth. Cole said he asked her, "Who did this?"
Cole said he heard her say, "Eric set me on fire."
Firefighter Shane Mills said he was horrified to see her condition. Mills said he knew Chambers, but did not recognize her at first.
"One of the worst things you could imagine," Mills said. "I can't picture it for y'all. Her hair was, you know, beautiful blonde. You look at it at the time, her hair is just fried."
Tellis, 29, faces life in prison without parole if convicted. He also faces a 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. No trial date has been set in that case.