TAMPA — When Nicole Nachtman was in 10th grade, her mother slammed her head against a table because her cursive handwriting wasn't good enough. The next year, Myriam Dienes kicked her daughter because she "walked like a man." The mother even called her daughter "an overweight skank."
That's what the former Florida State student on trial for the 2015 murders of her mother and stepfather told psychotherapist Kathleen Heide. The expert witness was hired by Nachtman's defense to assemble evidence that their client endured physical, verbal and psychological abuse from her mother throughout her life.
"It made her feel worthless," Heide told a jury in a Tampa courtroom on Wednesday. "She was just totally discredited."
This is the second week of the trial of Nachtman, now 25, who faces two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Myriam and Robert Dienes at their Carrollwood home.
Through Heide's testimony, her public defenders introduced the jury to the concept of battered child syndrome. They have argued that Nachtman was emotionally stunted from the abuse and lived with the delusion that her mother was going to kill her.
The defense has also suggested that Nachtman suffers from schizophrenia, an assertion Heide said is supported by the daughter's odd behavior in the years before the slayings; her reports of hearing "screaming voices" when the murders occurred; and her lack of understanding of the consequences of what she did.
In the weeks after Nachtman was arrested and jailed in 2015, she recounted those tales and numerous others for Heide, a University of South Florida criminology professor. Heide built a profile of Nachtman by interviewing her, family, acquaintances and going through school records.
The psychotherapist was struck by Nachtman's "bizarre" behavior. She told jokes and wanted to talk about Japanese anime. She described Nachtman as "dissociated," failing to grasp the gravity of the situation. Nachtman had grown up emotionally stunted and totally reliant on her mother, the expert said. Her personality development was far below that of an average college student.
"She learned basically if you follow the rules, and don't make waves, you're going to get by, and didn't think much more about it," Heide said. But the daughter was still terrified of Myriam Dienes.
The professor also testified that Nachtman said there were voices screaming in her head when she shot her stepfather. After he was dead, they subsided.
Thunder rumbled as she shot him. She thought it would cover up the sound of the gunfire, protecting her from the police. Nachtman believed God was helping her.
Then, after killing her mother in the driveway, Nachtman walked back to her car parked in a different neighborhood and saw sheriff's cruisers drive right past her.
The defendant believed it was "a sign from God that he was protecting her," Heide told the jury.
"She is still functioning like a child," the professor said. "Nicole doesn't think she's making choices. Things just happen to her."
Heide said Nachtman showed 11 out of 12 common characteristics of severely abused children who kill their parents. They include a pattern of family violence, a failure by the child to escape, a feeling of being trapped and helpless, access to guns at home and a sense of relief after the parent's death.
In Nachtman's mind, she believed her life would end three ways: She would kill herself, she would be killed or she would kill her mother.
Heide noted other symptoms of mental illness. Nachtman's speech was disorganized. She had poor hygiene. She isolated herself and withdrew from social relationships.
Nachtman also talked about what she believed would be appropriate punishment for what she did: having her earnings donated to a charity of the jury's choice, hours of torture and banishment from Florida.
But Nachtman didn't want a felony conviction, Heide said, because she wanted to go into the military.
"Its always been my opinion that she didn't understand the consequences of what she had done," Heide said. "And, in fact, for over two years she believed her mother was still alive or her mother could affect the outcome of what was happening."
Then, Assistant State Attorney John Terry cross-examined the expert witness. Heide said the physical abuse Nachtman endured was not nearly as severe as other battered child cases she had seen. She also said there are many abuse victims who do not commit crimes. She also said Nachtman currently does not take psychotropic medication.
In January, the judge told her public defenders that they could mention battered child syndrome if it was tied to a claim of self-defense — but only when applied to the murder of Myriam Dienes. But the judge noted there was no evidence Robert Dienes abused Nachtman.
If convicted as charged, Nachtman faces up to life in prison.
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.