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After 12 hours, a verdict: Nicole Nachtman guilty of killing mother, stepfather

TAMPA — It took a jury 12 hours to find Nicole Nachtman guilty of executing her mother and stepfather at gunpoint.

The panel of five women and seven men convicted Nachtman early Saturday morning of two counts of first-degree murder, rejecting defense arguments that she was insane at the time of the crimes.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella immediately sentenced Nachtman, 25, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The defendant showed no reaction as the verdict was read. She appeared tired as she stood at a defense table, just after 1 a.m. Saturday, her hair sticking up in back as though she had been sleeping. She was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

"It was a difficult case," said Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who was in the courtroom when the jury's decision was announced. "Our attorneys did a tremendous job marshaling the evidence to prove she committed these heinous crimes and to hold her accountable."

Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, who personally led Nachtman's defense, left the courthouse without commenting.

RELATED STORY: Expert: Nachtman not insane when she killed mother, stepfather in Carrollwood

Jurors started deliberations just after 1 p.m. Friday. They appeared to struggle to reach a consensus.

After about seven hours, they asked Friday evening what would happen if they were unanimous on only one count. They also asked for the legal definitions of the words "consequences, psychotic break, psychosis and insane."

The judge conferred with the attorneys and agreed that they should refer them to their written instructions. The jurors kept working. After midnight, a prosecutor voiced concern about the length of the deliberations, but the judge declined to intervene. A verdict came minutes later.

It capped a two-week trial which at times felt less like a murder trial and more like an examination of the way Nachtman's mother molded her daughter's psyche.

"She wasn't a perfect parent," Assistant State Attorney John Terry said in his closing argument to the jury earlier Friday. "She made mistakes. But those mistakes do not give Nicole Nachtman the right to kill her."

Defense attorneys argued that Myriam Dienes inflicted years of psychological, verbal and physical abuse on Nachtman, who was emotionally stunted and lived in fear. They also argued that Nachtman had schizophrenia, carrying the delusion that her mother was going to kill her, and thus did not understand the consequences of her actions.

Myriam Dienes, 56, was a captain and nurse in the Navy. She was returning home from a work-related trip the night of Aug. 20, 2015 when she was shot three times outside her home. A next-door neighbor testified he heard the gunshots and a scream, then saw a shadowy figure dashing between their homes.

He looked out and saw Dienes lying dead at the end of his driveway.

When Hillsborough sheriff's deputies arrived, they found the front door open. Inside, a locked bedroom concealed the body of Robert Dienes, 67. He had been dead for at least a day, a gunshot wound to the back of his head.

RELATED STORY: From screaming in her head to blacking out, brother details Nicole Nachtman's confession to parents' slayings

Before the slayings, prosecutors said, Nachtman was worried because she had not obtained housing at Florida State University, where she was a student. So she laid out a trap for her mother, the state argued.

First, she shot Robert Dienes, then dragged his body into a bedroom. She cleaned up her stepfather's blood, but left droplets and smudges throughout the house, along with her own thumbprint stamped in blood on a wall.

She stayed in the house for about a day. She borrowed money from a cousin to pay her housing fee, deposited it, and later learned she got that dorm room after all.

Hours before her mother returned home, Nachtman parked her red Toyota Prius about a mile from the home. She came back and munched on Cheetos while watching a movie, "Ex Machina."

In a confession she later made to her older half-brother, she said she got cold feet when she heard her mother arrive. She said she tried to sneak out a window, but Myriam Dienes spotted her outside.

"Nikki," the mother said. "What the f--- are you doing here?"

Nachtman then shot her mother.

After the murders, Nachtman drove to Tallahassee. That's where she was arrested the next day.

The defense relied heavily on the testimony of two psychological experts who said Nachtman showed signs of battered child syndrome.

The experts said Myriam Dienes belittled her with cutting comments like that she was an "overweight skank" and a "worthless daughter." They said Nachtman also related incidents in which her mother hit or kicked her.

"This wasn't the mind of a normal 21-year-old," said defense attorney Dana Herce-Fulgueira. "This was the mind of a child."

Dienes shamed her daughter about her weight, even though she was she was never particularly heavy, forcing her to undergo liposuction. Shortly before the killings, Dienes was trying to make Nachtman get laser surgery to correct her vision.

RELATED STORY: Expert: Mother physically, emotionally abused daughter before murder

Witnesses also testified about signs that Nachtman suffered from mental illness.

She dressed in layers amid the Florida heat, had to be told to bathe, slept during the day and stayed awake nights, was socially withdrawn, and fixated on Japanese anime and the Disney animated musical "Frozen." At the time of the killings, she spoke of "screaming voices" in her head and seeing signs from God.

Nachtman spoke few words during the trial. As her family, schoolmates, and neighbors trooped into the courtroom one after another to take the witness stand, she remained slouched in her seat at a defense table, seldom looking up.

But it was her words that helped convict her.

In court Friday, prosecutors played recordings of a set of controlled phone calls detectives made to Nachtman hours after her mother was killed.

"They're making it sound like you're involved," her uncle says to her in one call.

"I was here," Nachtman said.She said she left home two days earlier.

"The detective told me somebody hurt your mom intentionally," her uncle said.

"Mom doesn't get along with as many people as you think," Nachtman said.

Those words, Assistant State Attorney Courtney Derry told the jury, are the best evidence of what her state of mind was.

"These are not disorganized, illogical thoughts. These are not hallucinations," Derry said. "She knows exactly what she's done and what's happening."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan.

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