Starving Kessler faces competency hearing

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  • Kessler listens intently at her hearing via video conferencing on Monday, just before hurling expletives. ZOOM/NASSAU COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE/4TH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT COURT
    Kessler listens intently at her hearing via video conferencing on Monday, just before hurling expletives. ZOOM/NASSAU COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE/4TH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT COURT
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Kimberly Kessler has starved herself from about 170 pounds at the time of her arrest for the murder of Joleen Cummings to her current weight of 74 pounds. She refuses to see attorneys appointed to represent her in the case, and is under observation 24 hours a day at the Nassau County Jail. During a hearing on Monday to determine her mental competency to stand trial for the murder, she took off her clothes, defecated, and smeared the feces on the window of her cell. 

But, does this behavior prove that she is incompetent? That determination is once again in the hands of Judge James H. Daniel. 

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.

After reviewing evidence and expert testimony from forensic psychologists, Daniel ruled in March of this year that Kessler was competent to proceed with her trial, but since then, she been on a hunger strike that’s resulted in a dramatic weight loss.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper filed a petition last week that would have allowed Kessler to be force-fed, but Judge Steven M. Fahlgren denied it. Leeper filed a second petition on Sunday, Oct. 4, asking to be allowed to force-feed Kessler.

Prosecution attorney Donna Thurston asserted Monday that Kessler was determined to be competent in March, and said that ruling should stand. Defense attorneys Teresa Sopp and Jordan Beard said Kessler does not display one of the six indications that a defendant is competent to stand trial – the ability to participate in their own legal defense.

Kessler did not take part in Monday’s hearing, which was conducted via Zoom, as she was uncooperative, simply shouting expletives at the camera when it was her turn to speak. Speaking directly into the camera, she shouted “F--- you” and “screw the public defender” before being led back to her cell at the jail, where Capt. Paula Deluca said she is under observation at all times.

Later, other jail staff said she had undressed and was standing on her bed smearing feces on the window.

During the hearing, Deluca said that Kessler began refusing to eat shortly after her arrest, claiming that her food was poisoned by jail staff. She was transferred to the Duval County Jail, where she began eating but eventually stopped. After going to the hospital from the Duval jail, Kessler was returned to the Nassau jail.

Deluca said it is routine for Kessler to verbally abuse jail staff, including the medical staff, throw food trays, and stand naked on her bed. She has on more than one occasion, the captain said, “rubbed feces on the window.” She said Kessler has refused to talk to defense attorneys on at least 30 occasions. She refuses to take medication prescribed for her, including the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa, used to treat schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During the hearing, Dr. Graham Danzer, a psychologist at Florida State Hospital, said Zyprexa can be prescribed “for starvation” because it causes hunger. She is also supposed to take medication for urinary tract infections.

Deluca said Kessler has said she is “not leaving until I’m drug out in a body bag.” However, Deluca said Kessler had been “binging” since last Friday, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stating that she was doing so to prove that she will eat “when she wants to.”

Dr. Louis Legum was the psychologist who testified in March that Kessler was incompetent. He said Monday that he has attempted to talk to her since then, including a Sept. 9 visit to the jail, but she refused to talk to him. He said he believes Kessler not only has a personality disorder, but also a delusional disorder, a false fixed perception of reality. He said having a delusional disorder does not rule out her ability to exhibit normal behavior at times, while also being “engaged in bizarre, strange behavior that can only be part of delusional disorder,” he said.

Some examples of delusion, Legum said, are Kessler’s claims that male jail staff urinated in her bed and that the FBI has been stalking her for years. Legum said Kessler understands that her delusions make her seem mentally incompetent, and she can make the decision to behave in a way that does not display her delusional disorder.

During the hearing, Thurston referred to a report by a doctor who saw Kessler during a hospital stay. That doctor said Kessler’s refusal to eat was “most likely volitional” and not driven by mental illness. The prosecutor said that doctor could not rule out, with any certainty, psychosis and depression.

Thurston said Kessler’s behavior has not changed since she was found competent in March, but Legum said her medical condition has deteriorated and caused her to “slide into incompetence.”

Thurston quoted Kessler as saying visits to the hospital are “fun.”

Danzer testified in March that he believed Kessler was competent to stand trial, but said Monday he hasn’t seen her since then and could not testify to her current mental state without seeing her numerous times to gather observational information in order to make a diagnosis. He added that whatever Kessler’s reasons are for refusing to eat, starvation could lead to cognitive failure and affect her ability to communicate with her attorneys.

After the hearing, Cummings’ mother, Anne Johnson, released a statement asking that Kessler stand trial for her daughter’s murder.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Johnson said. “We must proceed with a trial.”

Johnson thanked Thurston and wished Daniel “godspeed” in making a ruling on Kessler’s competency. Nothing that her daughter’s remains have not been found, she stated, “We just need answers and we need some type of closure.”

Johnson also asked for prayers that her daughter’s remains be found and that justice is served.

“Every single day Joleen is on our minds. Joleen will be forever in our hearts and I will be Joleen’s voice for ‘Justice.’ I never thought I could imagine other families’ pain of the murdered with no closure. Now, I feel it all; sadness, anger, fear, pain, and an empty hole in our hearts. For the families of murder victims, our grief never ends.”

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com