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Our longtime District Attorney passed away Sunday after a lengthy illness. John Champion served as the 17th Circuit Court District DA from 2001 until his death. As news outlets in the area reported his death, many of the accounts included his prosecution in high profile cases including the 2014 death of Jessica Chambers in Panola County.
Like many others, I watched much of the coverage for both trials as Champion pursued a conviction for Quinton Tellis. The trials were among the most publicized in Champion’s 21 year tenure. Both ended with split juries. I remembered that there was talk of a third trial, but it never materialized. The law enforcement officials and prosecutorial team were never able to overcome testimony from first responders who heard Chamber’s final words. She was asked who did it, and managed to get out what they thought sounded like “Eric or “Derek.”
Champion and his team had put together a strong circumstantial case that included detailed testimony from a barrage of expert witnesses who traced Tellis’ movements from cell phone data during the time leading up to Chambers’ death. It wasn’t enough to convince the juries and her murder remains unsolved.
John worked hard on that case, and I respected his work. What I remember most was John was an avid golfer and Ole Miss fan, as well as a respected and talented DA. He was a pleasure to work with, always available during the last two decades when I reached out for information about a trial or a defendant. He trusted me enough to share details about cases that could not be shared with the public at that particular point in an investigation or trial. This could be background information that helped me understand the story I was covering and would ultimately come to light. I will miss working with John.
Governor Tate Reeves will make an appointment to fill the vacancy. This is going to be interesting, as the 17th Circuit Court District will be restructured starting in 2023. The district will split with the creation of a new 23rd Circuit Court District for Desoto County. The 17th Court District will shrink to the four remaining counties – Panola, Tate, Yalobusha and Tallahatchie counties.
This change brings simplicity as the cumbersome structure of the 17th Court District is currently composed of two subdistricts, with the four southern counties grouped together and Desoto County encompassing the second subdistrict.
Currently two circuit judges are elected in the four county subdistrict, one is elected in the Desoto County subdistrict, and fourth judge elected from all five counties. With the change, two judges will be elected in District 17 and two will be elected in District 23.
The restructuring also means there will be a DA serving in each court district.
The 2020 bill adopted by state lawmakers provided an option for Champion. He could qualify for a special election for District 17 DA that is scheduled in November or continue to serve the remaining year of his term as the District 23 DA.
He did not qualify for the special election in District 17, which meant that he would switch to the 23rd district. Jay Hale was the sole qualifier for the special election for District 17’s DA and will take office in January. Hale will serve a one year term as the 17th District DA position will be back in the ballot in the 2023 election for a full four-year term. This will put the position back on the same election cycle for district attorney positions across the state, which coincides with elections for most state and county offices.
This gets us back to the Governor’s appointment.
The appointee will serve all five counties until the end of the year. Presumably after that, the appointee will serve the 23rd Court District in 2023 for the final year of Champion’s four year term as Jay Hale will take office in January for District 17.
I worked with Jay when he served as an assistant district attorney under John. He is a good prosecutor and I look forward to working with him.