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Kimberly Kessler calls attorney 'piece of garbage,' wants her off case

Woman accused of killing salon co-worker was in court for competency hearing

YULEE, Fla. – A woman accused of killing her co-worker at a Nassau County hair salon last year called her attorney "a piece of garbage" in court Thursday and said she wants her removed from the case.

Kimberly Kessler was supposed to be in court for a competency hearing but instead informed Judge James Daniel that she wants different representation.

When Daniel asked her why, Kessler said she'd told the staff at Florida State Hospital why but refused to explain further.

Kessler "garbage" comment couldn't be heard by cameras in court, but Public Defender Teresa Sopp told Daniel, "When we first stepped up to the podium, she told me I'm a piece of garbage." 

Sopp said she doesn't believe she can represent Kessler any longer because the attorney-client relationship has been compromised.

She said she has a conflict with her client, whom she believes is still mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Daniel said Sopp's actions so far have been appropriate, timely and thorough, and he would not appoint another attorney yet.

Sopp said she would be filing a petition to withdraw from the case, and Daniel said he would consider the motion later this month. They are set to be back in court Nov. 26.

For now, Daniel made no ruling on Kessler's competence, and she remains committed to Florida State Hospital.

Kessler, who is charged with murdering Joleen Cummings, was initially ruled not competent to stand trial July 2.

Last month, staff at the 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.

Kessler was sent to the hospital after Daniel agreed with a state-appointed psychologist and a psychiatrist hired by Kessler's defense who both said she was not competent for trial.

A notice last month from the Florida Department of Children and Families stated that Florida state law required a competency hearing for Kessler within 30 days of the court receiving the updated evaluation from the hospital staff.

It will be up to Daniel to decide if Kessler's trial can move forward, but that issue has been postponed while the court works out the issue between Kessler and Sopp.

COURT DOCUMENTS: Incompetency order | DCF notice of updated evaluation 

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.

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. 


About the Authors:

Maggie Lorenz

Multi-media journalist