Court says Kimberly Kessler still competent for trial

Kimberly Kessler attends Zoom hearing on her competency from the Nassau County jail where she is being held on a murder charge. (4th Judicial Circuit Zoom hearing)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After conducting an evidentiary hearing and reviewing expert reports, a court has determined that Kimberly Kessler, a woman who’s charged with killing her coworker at a Nassau County hair salon, remains competent to stand trial.

The decision comes as Kessler remains behind bars in the Nassau County Jail. She weighed approximately 74 pounds when she appeared during a competency hearing last Monday.

During the hearing, Kessler was removed from view after she yelled an expletive about the public defender’s office. On the Zoom hearing, Kessler could still be heard yelling and cursing in the background. A deputy came back and told the court that Kessler did not want to be represented by the public defender.

“Screw the public defender’s office,” she could be heard saying.

Also during the hearing, Nassau jail Capt. Paula DeLuca testified that Kessler refused to eat, cursed at and made demeaning remarks to corrections officers, medical staff and doctors. DeLuca said Kessler’s weight had dropped from 196 pounds. She’s on suicide watch and has rubbed feces on herself and on the windows.

DeLuca said that when Kessler heard the hearing was approaching, she went on a binge eating spree, eating multiple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

An emergency order from the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office requested guidance from a judge, saying Kessler was refusing to eat and wouldn’t accept any medical treatment. Last Tuesday, the judge dismissed the petition, which stated that Kessler was trying to kill herself by starvation.

According to the court, the updated testimony and evidence presented to the court “has not overcome the presumption that Defendant (Kessler) remains competent to stand trial.” It states that although it has increased in intensity, Kessler’s current pattern of conduct is “no different than when she was first arrested in 2018. Before her first competency hearing, she consistently engaged in periods where she refused to eat for various reasons."

According to the ruling, Kessler has been “selectively” participating or refusing to participate in medical services and rehab classes, has been taken to the hospital more than 30 times, many times under a Baker Act, and has made mocking comments about her starvation episodes.

Judge James Daniel found that all this behavior was indicative not of mental illness but of a personality disorder. He noted that both psychologists who testified during last week’s competency hearing agreed that Kessler understands the proceedings against her and appreciates the charges and the range of possible penalties. He called Kessler’s behavior “most likely volitional and not driven by serious mental illness.”

The court also states: “As extreme as Defendant’s behavior has been, it does not automatically mean she is incompetent for the purpose of going to trial.”

The judge said he lacks the authority under law to place Kessler in a facility to keep her from “starving herself and causing death or serious internal damage" but he doesn’t oppose her awaiting trial at Florida State Hospital.

Kessler is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Joleen Cummings, a 34-year-old mother of three.

Background on the case

Cummings 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.

Court documents state that investigators believe the hairstylist may have been killed inside Tangles Hair Salon in Yulee. Records provided to the defense attorney show that detectives and the lead prosecutor found bloodstains on a chair in the salon, the wall near the reception desk, a wooden display stand, a signboard, a vacuum cleaner leaning against the wall, another chair and a display rack next to the desk.

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.

Kessler is believed to be that last person to see Cummings alive.

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

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