YULEE, Fla. – After taking time to weigh the opposing opinions of two established psychologists, Judge James Daniel ruled Tuesday that Kimberly Kessler’s trial can move forward.
Kessler is charged with murdering Joleen Cummings, her co-worker at a Nassau County hair salon, in 2018. She has been committed to Florida State Hospital since Daniel initially ruled her not competent for prosecution last July based on testimony from doctors on both sides.
Last month, Kessler had a hearing to review her competency after hospital staff found that she was competent.
During the hearing, Dr. Louis Legum, a psychologist, testified that Kessler should not be found competent for prosecution.
COURT DOCUMENT: Competency order
Legum gave his opinion in 2019 that Kessler suffers from a delusional disorder and upheld that opinion at the hearing, saying that Kessler has been unable to answer questions to them about the case because of the delusional disorder.
He said her condition waxes and wanes depending on the setting. Legum wrote that Kessler is smart enough to mask her delusional condition and he is uncertain if medication would help. He said she “knows all the legal stuff backward and forwards” and understands the charges against her. He estimates she has an IQ of 130 and appears to possess a photographic memory. Her ability to perform higher-level functions formally is usually not a sign of mental illness.
But Dr. Graham Danzer, a psychologist at Florida State Hospital, testified that he believes Kessler could discuss the facts of her case and should be able to so with her attorney with reasonable understanding and should be able to stand trial.
Danzer concluded Kessler has a psychopathic personality disorder. She can be “charming, manipulative and capable of violence.” She was never prescribed any psychotropic drugs during her incarceration, and she repeatedly told doctors she wouldn’t take them anyway. Danzer said if she was delusional, her condition would have deteriorated, and it has not. Danzer said there is a possibility Kessler would disrupt trial proceedings, but that would be out of choice. He agreed that she is aware of the charges against her, and the seriousness of the situation.
Daniel said both psychologists presented their findings clearly, and it “appears both experts have reached opposite conclusions based on an honest and good-faith professional difference of opinion.”
He said after weighing all the information, he sided with Danzer’s assessment that if Kessler doesn’t cooperate with her attorney, it’s because she’s choosing not to. He said he came to that decision partly because Danzer worked with the team that spent time with Kessler at the hospital and partly because both experts agreed that Kessler has demonstrated she can understand the charges, appreciate the range of penalties and understand the process.
Daniel ruled that Kessler’s trial can move forward because she “has the present ability to consult with her attorneys with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and an above-average factual understanding of the proceedings against her.”
Cummings’ mother, Anne Johnson, who has been at every hearing, release a statement Tuesday after learning of the judge’s ruling:
Today is a day we have been praying for.
Today our souls magnifies the Lord.
Thank you to an unbias Judge with the evidence presented before him to make the decision that the suspect is competent to stand trial.
Today is a day to prepare for trial. Now the case is active again and our Asst. State Atty can proceed forward.
Today, I thank everyone who has been praying for Justice4Joleen. For Joleen's 3 children and our family continue to ask for prayers without ceasing that Joleen's remains are found and that
Justice is served.
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.
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.