1st glimpse in court of woman accused in Nassau County mother's killing

Murder defendant Kimberly Kessler attends hearing over release of evidence

YULEE, Fla. – A woman charged with the murder of a 24-year-old woman who has been missing since Mother's Day and is presumed dead attended her first hearing in a Nassau County courtroom Tuesday since she was arrested in May in connection with the disappearance.

Joleen Cummings' SUV was found parked outside a Home Depot after she was reported missing by her family when she failed to show up to pick up her children from her ex-husband.

Kimblery Kessler was arrested May 16 and charged with grand theft auto after investigators said they found surveillance video showing her getting out of Cummings' vehicle.

Kessler was later charged with killing Cummings, her co-worker at a Yulee hair salon. The mother of three was last seen May 12 and her body has not been located.

Kessler has waived all court appearances since her initial arrest, so Tuesday afternoon's hearing was the first time she was seen by the public other than in booking photographs. She entered the courtroom wearing a neon jumpsuit, indicating she is a high-risk prisoner, and wearing a medical mask over her lower face.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said when she was transferred from Duval County earlier in the day she was wearing the mask as a precaution because she refused to submit to a tuberculosis test. Deputies and corrections officers plan to keep the mask on permanently.

Kessler, who Leeper said has lived in 33 cities in 14 states under 17 names since 1996, is being held without bond.

weeklong search in June at a South Georgia landfill was prompted by surveillance video that authorities said showed Kessler appearing to put a white trash bag into a dumpster about the time of Cummings' disappearance.

After sifting through 6.6 million pounds of trash at the Chesser Island Landfill, the FBI and the Sheriff's Office announced that they had found several items of interest in Cumming's disappearance

Tuesday's hearing was on a motion by News4Jax to release evidence in the case known as discovery material. Under Florida law, evidence from prosecutors becomes public record once it is shared with defense attorneys.

Kessler’s defense lawyers are opposing the release, saying it will hamper her right to a fair trial.

The evidence they want blocked includes Kessler’s phone records, a nine-hour video, as well as detective interviews with Kessler and with her former boyfriends. The judge is giving Kessler’s attorneys two weeks to provide a list of everything she objects to having disclosed to the public. Once he has that list, he will then set another court date to rule on the motion.

Kessler’s attorney said she feels the jury pool would be biased if the evidence is released. 

Ed Birk, a private attorney who represents News4Jax, was at Tuesday's hearing and talked about why the case is unique.

"This is unusual in the fact that there is so much evidence. There’s been an awful lot of investigation of her background because police didn’t know who she was, so there’s more paperwork, more evidence in this case than there might be in any other case where the defendant is known," Birk said. "So that’s one of the reasons that, maybe, this is going to take longer -- because of the amount of evidence."

Cummings' mother, Anne Johnson, and other members of her family attended Tuesday's hearing. While the lawyers and investigators are under a gag order not to talk about the case, Johnson said she is able to talk about it, but will not talk about Kessler. 

"I pray with all my heart that my daughter's remains will be found. It's been 255 days. ... There's no such thing (as closure), but I would like to bring my daughter home,"  Johnson said. "We've been through how many pretrials? I'll be grateful for the day we do select a jury. I believe in the judicial system. I believe we'll get a fair, impartial jury."

After the hearing, Johnson showed News4Jax Cummings’ devotional journal that she recently found with the page turned down that her daughter last read.

"While I was reading this book, the warrior within me has awakened," Johnson said. "I believe in the justice system. I am thankful for God‘s knowledge and giving the investigators the DNA forensic evidence that they need. I am thankful to the sheriff's office that has worked diligently and the state attorney's office and the FBI in this case."

Kessler has been held in the Duval County jail since she went on a hunger strike in the Nassau County jail. She continued to be held in Jacksonville when she was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in September and will stay in custody in the Duval County jail when no hearings are scheduled in her case.