Judge: Kessler is competent to stand trial

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  • Judge James H. Daniel has ruled that Kimberly Kessler is competent to stand trial for the first-degree murder of Joleen Cummings. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Judge James H. Daniel has ruled that Kimberly Kessler is competent to stand trial for the first-degree murder of Joleen Cummings. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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Kimberly Kessler may have a personality disorder, but a judge ruled last week she is well enough to be tried for the 2018 murder of Joleen Cummings.

“(Kessler) has the sufficient present ability to consult with her lawyers with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and has a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against her,” Judge James H. Daniel wrote in his ruling. “These proceedings shall no longer be suspended and the attorneys may proceed
forward with all relevant discovery and trial preparations.”

Kessler was charged in September 2018 with the first-degree murder of Cummings, with whom she had worked at the now-closed Tangles Hair Salon. Cummings’ body has not been found.

Kessler was later determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and remanded to Florida State Hospital, where staff observed and evaluated her. The professionals there found her to be competent and she was returned to jail. Her then-attorney, public defender Teresa Sopp, asked for another mental evaluation after observing Kessler. Sopp also said Kessler refused to cooperate in her own defense. Kessler then said that she did not want Sopp to represent her.

Jordan Beard represented Kessler in a March 4 competency hearing before Daniel. Assistant State Attorney Donna Thurston represented the prosecution.

Two psychologists, Dr. Graham Danzer and Dr. Louis Legum, offered the bulk of
testimony regarding Kessler’s competency at the hearing. 

Danzer performs evaluations at Florida State Hospital “helping patients become competent,” he said. Danzer testified that, while Kessler may be diagnosed with psychopathy, which he called a personality disorder, that does not necessarily mean she is incompetent to stand trial. He said Kessler demonstrated an understanding of the charges against her and has the capacity to work with her attorneys if she chooses to do so.

Legum said he believes after evaluating Kessler that she is delusional and could not participate in her defense by cooperating with her
attorneys, as has been demonstrated by a lack of cooperation with her lawyers and other “bizarre” behavior.

Daniel’s ruling gets to the crux of the matter: “Is her past behavior and unwillingness to cooperate with almost anyone involved in the defense of her case volitional or the product of a mental illness?”

Daniel said Danzer has had the advantage, due to his position at Florida State Hospital, to observe Kessler more closely and to work with a team of mental health professionals who monitored Kessler 24 hours a day.

“Dr. Danzer recognized that Defendant’s interactions with her attorneys have been difficult, and that there is a history of Defendant being aggressive, difficult, and uncooperative towards others she has known in her past,” the ruling says. “Dr. Danzer explained, however, that being uncooperative and difficult is not a symptom of mental illness. He extensively interviewed Defendant and found she gave logical, rational answers to questions about her case and had a detailed understanding of the State’s evidence. Dr. Danzer noted Defendant focused on the idea that all of the evidence was fabricated or
planted, but he explained that this is a logical, reality-based defense and competency does not require it to be persuasive or realistic in its chances of success.”

Daniel also noted that, before her arrest, Kessler was able to maintain a bank account, hold down a job, and perform other tasks, writing: “A person with an untreated mental illness such as delusional disorder typically would not be able to act in this manner.” 

“Dr. Danzer explained that individuals with mental illness can perform these functions, if medicated, but Defendant has never been prescribed, much less taken, psychotropic medication,” Daniel wrote. “In her reported past history, as well as the evidence of her interactions with her attorneys and mental healthcare providers presented at the hearing, Defendant has displayed many of the character traits of someone with a psychopathic personality disorder. Dr. Danzer viewed Defendant’s refusal to cooperate with her attorneys in the defense of her case as more of a question of her will rather than her capacity due to mental illness and, based on these and other factors, the court finds this to be the more persuasive testimony. Defendant 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. The court finds she is competent to proceed.”

Sopp told the News-Leader the Public Defender’s Office is reviewing Daniel’s order and determining options for Kessler’s defense. She said a status conference was scheduled to take place remotely on Thursday, March 26.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com