YULEE, Fla. – Nassau County Circuit Judge James Daniel heard from doctors, corrections deputies and a lawyer Wednesday before ruling that Kimberly Kessler is competent to stand trial for murder in the 2018 death of her co-worker, Joleen Cummings.
An emaciated Kessler immediately started yelling as she was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair. After less than a minute, when she refused to stop, Daniel said she was disruptive and ordered her removed so the hearing could continue.
What Kessler was repeatedly shouting -- “Jordan Beard is Joleen Cummings’ cousin” -- is an accusation about one of her court-appointed attorneys that has been proven untrue.
During the morning, seven Nassau County corrections deputies testified about multiple incidents involving human excrement, making vulgar statements, refusing to eat, and acting out when Kessler doesn’t get what she wants. One detention deputy said Kessler “refused all three meals offered to her.” Another said she “would take feces and smear it on the walls and sometimes would write with it.” Another testified Kessler “threatened to break every bone in my body.”
Kessler has been on suicide watch since April 11. One deputy said she has studied the Bible looking for justification for taking her own life and even spoke to a minister about it.
“She wanted to go back to general population so they could kill her,” Deputy K. Hodges said.
In the afternoon, a mental health practitioner, a psychiatrist and one of Kessler’s own lawyers testified that she could not cooperate in her defense.
Her defense continues to argue that she needs to be hospitalized for “mental illness” and is not fit to stand trial.
Psychologist Lewis Legum, who has previously testified, told the court that Kessler suffers from delusional disorder and personality disorder.
“She is strategic and intelligent,” said Alexandra Johnson of Starting Point Behavior Health who said it is possible for someone to have a mental health disorder and be competent.
After about four hours of testimony, Daniel ruled that while Kessler is a “difficult” defendant, that does not make her incompetent. This was the second time he has ruled her competent after an initial ruling of incompetent sent her into the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families for almost a year.
“Competency is often confused with an insanity plea, which means somebody had a mental disorder and didn’t understand the crime that they committed, but competency to stand trial is really about understanding the charges, legal proceedings and being able to consult with one’s attorney,” explained Dr. Just D’Arienzo, a forensic psychologist.
Her first-degree murder trial is currently scheduled to begin in August, although there are several motions -- including a change-of-venue request asking that the trial be moved out of Nassau County -- that must be settled before the trial can begin. Kessler is also now facing two felony counts of battery on a law enforcement officer arising from incidents in the jail.
“I’m feeling enlighted that our prayers have been answered,” Cumming’s mother, Anne Johnson, said after sitting through the hearing. ”That we’ve waited a long three years and it has been three competency hearings and we are ready for justice to be served.”
Johnson said she’s thankful for the community’s support and prays that her daughter’s remains will be found.
Kessler’s competency has been raised repeatedly during court proceedings, particularly after she went on a hunger strike that authorities said dropped her body weight to 89 pounds.
According to court records, Kessler once told a corrections officer, “I’m not afraid of going to hell. It’s time.”