Hospital says Kimberly Kessler is competent to stand trial

Woman accused of killing hair salon co-worker sent to state mental hospital

A woman accused of killing a Nassau County mother of three last year at the hair salon where they both worked is now fit to stand trial, according to staff at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

YULEE, Fla. – A woman accused of killing a Nassau County mother of three last year at the hair salon where they both worked is now fit to stand trial, according to staff at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Kimberly Kessler, who is charged with murdering Joleen Cummings, was ruled not competent to stand trial July 2 after a state-appointed psychologist agreed with the opinion previously given by a psychiatrist for Kessler's defense. 

Kessler was scheduled to receive a follow-up evaluation in early January, but the Department of Children and Families said a competency evaluation by staff at Florida State Hospital found Kessler "is competent to proceed and no longer meets criteria for continued involuntary commitment."

Florida State Hospital was the facility tasked with "restoring" Kessler's competency.

The notice from DCF states that Florida state law requires a competency hearing for Kessler within 30 days of the court receiving the updated evaluation.

"It's a little surprising as quickly hospital staff came back based upon whatever medication she is now on is competent to stand trial," said Gene Nichols, an attorney who is not affiliated with the case. "When you have a competency evaluation and the client is found incompetent, you're always thinking, 'Maybe a part of the issues are defense to the crime.' So I expect that's what they will be exploring next, not already."

It will be up to a judge to decide if Kessler's trial can move forward. Judge James Daniel set Kessler's mental competency hearing for Oct. 31.

COURT DOCUMENTS: Incompetency order | DCF notice of updated evaluation | Order to transport and notice of hearing

Cummings' mother, Anne Johnson, did not wish to speak on camera Tuesday, but told News4Jax that she is waiting to hear from the State Attorney's Office and will continue to pray for justice for her daughter. Johnson has held strong to her faith since the beginning. 

"Will she ever tell us the answers? I don't know. I pray for that, but we're not giving up. We are in a storm and the storm isn't over with," Johnson told News4Jax on July 2 after Kessler was deemed incompetent to stand trial and was ordered to be sent to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. "I don't want this going 25 years to where we're never able to find her. That's my greatest concern."

Johnson said at the time, "She will be found competent. She'll become competent. I have to believe in the judicial system."

WATCH: Community reacts after learning hospital staff found Kimberly Kessler fit to stand trial

According to the judge's order for competency in July, the doctors who evaluated Kessler earlier and found her not competent for trial looked at several key points, including whether Kessler understands the charges against her, if she understands the range and nature of possible penalties, whether she has the ability to challenge witnesses and if she can behave appropriately in court and testify, among other factors. 

Dr. Umesh Mhatre, one of the psychiatrists who interviewed Kessler, wrote that he believed Kessler was suffering from delusional and personality disorders, according to state documents obtained by News4Jax.

Mhatre said Kessler's overall prognosis was poor without medication, but he wrote that he believed if she was appropriately treated that she could become competent to proceed.

Nichols said besides the likelihood of the defense going with an "insanity plea," it's also probable that the defense will try to move the case out of Nassau County.

"If they have a difficult time continuing, they can't get a jury over and over again, (the defense could say,) 'Alright, we cannot get a good fair and impartial jury here. Let's move it to a different county, where there hasn't been as much press about the case,'" Nicholas said.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced in September 2018 the indictment of Kessler, and Nichols believes she will stay very involved in the case.

"Nelson will listen to family and will make decisions that she believes are in the best interest of the Fourth Judicial Circuit and all of us, but that includes and it's not limited to the victim's family," Nichols said.

A spokesman for the State Attorney's Office on Tuesday afternoon issued the following statement on the notice from DCF: 

"We look forward to moving ahead on this case for Joleen's family and the people of Nassau County."

Kessler is charged with first-degree murder in Cummings' death. Investigators suspect Kessler, who worked with Cummings at Tangles hair salon in Yulee, was the last person to see Cummings alive. 

Joleen Cummings

Cummings (pictured), 34, has been missing since May 2018, and although her body has not been found, investigators said they found several notable items at a Georgia landfill.

Following Cummings' disappearance, her SUV was found parked outside a Home Depot. Kessler was arrested May 16 after investigators said they found footage showing her getting out of the vehicle.

Since then, the state has released reams of evidence in the case through the discovery process that suggest a struggle occurred at the salon and that steps were taken to dispose of that evidence.

The case has attracted national attention in part because authorities said Kessler, who went by Jennifer Sybert, has used 17 aliases over the years. 

The Nassau County community has also been moved by the case, with some residents telling News4Jax that they believe Kessler should go to trial. 

"People are ready for closure," Nassau County resident Patty Wiggins said Tuesday. "I know (Cummings') family is and I couldn't be happier about it."

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.