Defense: Woman accused of killing Nassau County mother may be incompetent

Murder defendant Kimberly Kessler speaks out during pretrial hearing

By Jennifer Ready - Reporter, Corley Peel - Reporter, Frank Powers - Assignment manager

YULEE, Fla. - The defense attorney for Kimberly Kessler, the woman charged with the murder of a 34-year-old woman missing since Mother's Day and presumed dead, questioned the competency of her client during a hearing Thursday, asking for a mental evaluation before a trial can proceed.

Kessler, accused in the death of co-worker Joleen Cummings, shook her head as the lawyer talked about her. As the lawyers had approached the bench to confer with Circuit Judge James Daniel, Kessler repeatedly asked to speak. Daniel denied her request.

Daniel said he would rule on the defense request for a psychiatric evaluation of Kessler once a motion is filed next month. Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, a forensic psychologist, said the chances of her being ruled incompetent are slim.

“To be incompetent, one has to have a psychiatric or psychological diagnosis that impairs their ability to function, and they also have to lack the capacity or the appreciation of what they did wrong," D'Arienzo said.

WATCH: Slim chance Kessler will be ruled incompetent for trial, psychologist says

According to D’Arienzo, Kessler's past will be part of her mental evaluation. He pointed out that few people are considered incompetent to stand trial.

"After being evaluated, only 10 to 30 percent are found to lack competence," he said.

Cummings' mother, Anne Johnson, and other members of her family attend every 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 her daughter, but will not about Kessler. Johnson said she is still waiting for authorities to find her daughter's remains.

Joleen Cummings

“Unlike some people, I’m not able to see my daughter. I will never see Joleen again, to whisper to her one more time that 'I love you,'" Johnson said. "Joleen did not deserve to be taken from us so cruelly. I did not deserve to live the rest of my life in pain without my daughter.”

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Shortly after Cummings' family reported her missing in May, her SUV was found parked outside a Home Depot.

Kessler was arrested in St. Johns County on 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, who had been 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 until January. 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 remains in custody in Jacksonville when no hearings are scheduled in her case.

Kessler, who Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said has lived in 33 cities in 14 states under 17 names since 1996, continues to be held without bond.

Kessler's defense has opposed release evidence in the case known as discovery material, saying it will hamper her right to get a fair trial. Under Florida law, evidence from prosecutors becomes public record once it is shared with defense attorneys.

Much of the evidence has since been released and Daniel said he will rule on the specific material the defense has asked to withhold at the next scheduled hearing, March 21.

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