Kimberly Kessler found not competent to stand trial

Woman accused of killing co-worker sent to state mental hospital for 6 months

By Ashley Harding - Reporter, Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor

YULEE, Fla. - A woman accused of killing her co-worker at a Nassau County hair salon last year was found not competent to stand trial Tuesday after a second mental evaluation, which was ordered by the court.

Kimberly Kessler, who is charged with murdering Joleen Cummings, had her second mental competency exam last month after her defense attorneys claimed a psychiatrist they'd hired had found Kessler, 50, not fit for trial.

Prosecutors disputed that characterization of Kessler’s mental health, saying the state disagreed with the defense expert’s findings. Kessler was then examined by a psychologist chosen by the state, who also found her not competent.

She was committed to the custody of the Department of Children and Families, which will send her to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee to "restore competency." She will be reevaluated in six months to see if she will then be fit for trial.

If she is never found competent, charges may be dropped after five years, but usually with the understanding that the person would continue to live in a psychiatric facility for the remainder of their lives.

COURT DOCUMENT: Incompetency order

According to the judge's order for competency, the doctors who evaluated Kessler 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. 

The doctors were also tasked with determining if Kessler met the criteria to be committed to a hospital, and they found that she did.

What's next?

Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case, explained what’s next for Kessler.

"In essence, what the state of Florida is doing is trying to make a determination if they can make her competent," Nichols said. "Typically, what happens is if somebody is suffering some mental health or disease (that) medication and treatment can help with, that’s what they’ll be doing at the state hospital."

Nichols expects this process to go on for a couple of years before a judge might find Kessler competent, but Nichols said it is possible she will stand trial eventually.

"Theoretically, it can go for years. What we will most likely see at some point in time is a finding of competency after a significant amount of treatment and therapy," Nichols said. "Cases like this, we can see them fighting over competency for what could end up being multiple years and that’s what you would expect in a case such as this."

WATCH: What's next in the case?

In some cases, treatment does not help, so if that’s the case for Kessler, the state would have to make a decision. 

"The state may have to decide to not prosecute in this case, but in this case, I would tell you that we will be having competency hearing for years to come if she is found incompetent," Nichols said.

Two similar cases have gone different ways in Northeast Florida.

James Tadros, who is accused of trying to drown a girl in a bathroom, has had four competency reviews, and each time the judge ruled him not competent.

Nicholas Humphrey, who police said took 13 people hostage in a credit union, was ruled not competent for prosecution multiple times but was recently deemed fit to stand trial.

An ongoing mystery

Investigators suspect Kessler, who worked with Cummings at Tangles hair salon in Yulee, was the last person to see Cummings alive. The Nassau County mother of three was reported missing last May.

Kessler is charged with first-degree murder in Cummings’ death. More than a year later, the 34-year-old’s body has not been found, despite an extensive search at a Georgia landfill that turned up items of interest.

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.

A mother's faith

Cummings' mother, Anne Johnson, said Cummings' three children are a year older now, but time has not made this any easier on them.

She said she's upset about Tuesday's decision but is keeping faith that justice will prevail in her daughter's case.

"We’re not giving up," Johnson said. "I wasn’t surprised, but I will say: Is it incompetency or incompliant?"

Johnson said she believes Kessler is playing a game and is trying to outsmart the system by pretending to not be competent.

"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 said. "I don’t want this going 25 years to where we’re never able to find her. That’s my greatest concern."

Johnson believes Kessler will be found competent in six months when she is evaluated again.

"She may be intelligent, but we have a higher power," Johns said. "We have people that are fighting and working diligently on this case."

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