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Biased, related, indifferent: Potential jurors have range of connections to Kimberly Kessler murder trial

The woman accused of murdering hairstylist Joleen Cummings was excluded from her own trial due to continued disruptive behavior.

YULEE, Fla. — Ninety potential jurors were questioned Monday as jury selection got underway in the high-profile trial of Kimberly Kessler.

Kessler, 53, is accused of murdering Joleen Cummings, 34, a mother of three and Kessler’s coworker at the former Yulee hair salon, Tangles. Cummings was reported missing Mother’s Day in 2018. Police believe Kessler is the last person to see her alive.

Kessler, who was arrested in 2018 inside Cumming’s missing SUV, is seen on surveillance video carrying heavy garbage bags from inside the salon to a dumpster outside. Cummings’ blood was found throughout the salon. Her body has never been found.

Kessler, charged with first degree murder, has pleaded not guilty.

Some 90 potential jurors of a pool of 300 summoned this week submitted to what Circuit Judge James Daniel calls “Phase 1” questioning, related only to their knowledge of the case. Many of those interviewed said they follow the case closely, some saying it was “impossible to avoid” coverage of the case in the tight-knit rural county.

But others said they knew nothing about it, including one woman who said she gets all her information from Netflix, and a man who said he didn’t follow the news because “I really don’t have any concerns with what’s going on the world.”

Those last two were moved to the next phase of questioning, while those with knowledge of the case were dismissed by the judge. Also sent home was a middle-aged man who said members of the victim’s family were his in-laws – a conflict he noted (and Daniel conceded) wasn’t broached on the juror questionnaire.

Kessler was not in court Monday. As at other recent court appearances, she was wheeled into court, strapped in a restraint chair, before being removed by the judge for shouting baseless claims about her legal team.

Daniel, addressing Kessler via remote video, told her he will allow her back into court if she is not disruptive. 

“Ms. Kessler, if at any point in time you wish to participate in proceedings, all you have to do is let one of the bailiffs know, and you will be brought back up. But your participation is conditioned on your not disrupting these proceedings [like] you have this morning and have done in the past.”

Kessler’s attorneys said they continue to have concerns about her mental health, despite the judge’s repeated finding that she is competent to stand trial. 

“We believe that Ms. Kessler's continued behavior exhibited both in court and each time we in the Public Defender's Office try to speak with her, again, merits a court-ordered psychological evaluation to determine whether she is competent to proceed.”

The judge denied that request. Though Kessler’s questionable mental health was an issue some potential jurors mentioned, Daniel said he is confident she is capable of standing trial.

The judge wants to have at least 60 potential jurors in order to begin Phase 2, at which they will be questioned about their personal experiences and attitudes. Daniel said he expects that will begin Wednesday.

Fifty-three of the first 90 potential jurors questioned Monday moved on to Phase 2 of the process.