Self-Defense or Murder?: The Trial of Omaima Nelson

Some tales of criminal activity are so gruesome that it is nearly impossible for anyone to conceive how they can be committed. Omaima Nelson’s murder of her husband exists alongside mythically evil killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter for her mutilation of his body after she killed him.

After her arrest, her horrific acts made international headlines and disturbed everyone who learned about them. 

Omaima in a Santa Ana, California court room. Cape Cod Times.

Early Life

Omaima Nelson was born in Egypt in 1968 into a conservative household and led an unremarkable early life. She suffered through a somewhat harsh upbringing as a woman in a conservative Arabic family.

She was subject to genital mutilation as a child. This violent practice involves removing, reshaping, or otherwise maiming the clitoris, labia, vulva, or other parts of the vagina to discourage or fully prohibit sexual intercourse. This would greatly influence her life and contribute to her later violence against her husband.

Egypt was a nation plagued by political and military conflict within the first twenty years of Nelson’s life. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was a fierce fight between Egypt and Israel that resulted in an Egyptian loss.

However, the conflict led to the Camp David Accords in 1978, which ushered in an era of peace in the Middle East. Nearly a decade later, in 1986, Nelson moved to the United States to pursue a career in modeling, hoping to escape the world she knew and achieve the American dream.  

Marriage and Trouble Brewing

Nelson moved to California, a hotbed for aspiring models and actresses seeking a big break.

Just two years before Ronald Reagan, a famous actor, had won reelection as the President of the United States. This proved that life in the limelight could lead to many places.

While Nelson spent her first few years trying to launch her fledgling career, she also worked as a nanny to make ends meet. Five years after she moved to the United States she would meet the man she would marry.

In October 1991, she met 56-year-old William E. Nelson, an ex-Marine and ex-pilot who was over twice her age, but she did not care. The two hit it off, and they were married within just a few days. They spent their honeymoon traveling the US to see family.

They then moved in together in an apartment in Costa Mesa, California, but the honeymoon phase would not last long. On November 28, she would kill William Nelson. She claimed that there was a continuously escalating pattern of violence and abuse over the course of their short marriage.  

Omaima and William. Photo: Mister Andrew YouTube

Omaima claims William sexually assaulted her that night. Sex was already a contentious act for her, due to the genital mutilation she had been subject to.

It was painful and traumatic at times. Her husband forcibly taking sex could have triggered an intense response from her.

Omaima took a pair of scissors and stabbed William repeatedly before beating him to death with a clothing iron. She claims that killing William was an act of self-defense and that his sexual assault was too violent.

But it was what followed the murder that left law enforcement and the public alike disturbed. 

The Gruesome Crimes

Murder is a heinous crime, but also is fairly common. Nelson’s atrocious acts after the murder are what set her case apart from so many others, elevating her case to one that matches the worst of serial killers even though she only had one victim.

After William was dead, Nelson dismembered and desecrated his body in many ways. She claims that she entered a fugue state that she barely remembers.

First, she cut off his head and hands. She cooked his head and boiled his hands so that police could not identify his fingerprints. She also admitted to castrating his body as revenge for the sexual abuse she was subjected to. She had also skinned his torso and lower body.

Since it was Thanksgiving when she was tearing apart his body, Nelson ground up William’s body parts. She mixed them in with turkey before placing all of the meat in garbage bags and disposing of them outside.

She later told her psychiatrist that she also cooked her husband’s ribs and ate them, although she later denied that that occurred. 

Arrest and Trial

Nelson’s crimes were discovered after she asked a friend to assist her in getting rid of William’s remains. Although her friend originally agreed, she decided to call the police instead.

They then arrested Nelson and came to find evidence of her violent acts. Neighbors pointed out the horrible smell emitting from her garbage cans and claimed they heard to garbage disposal running for hours after William’s death.

Upon investigation, police found most of William’s remains buried in bags, although there were over 100 lbs of his body missing. Nelson denies having done anything else with the body and claims she disposed of his entire being in the trash.

The trial that followed was nothing short of a media spectacle. The gruesome details of the crime captured the public’s morbid fascination.

Omaima at her trial.

Earlier that year, the movie Silence of the Lambs had been released. In the movie, an FBI agent is chasing a serial killer who skins his victims, and she seeks assistance from another serial killer who is a cannibal.

Just months before infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was also arrested. Dahmer is best known for his cannibalistic tendencies and the massive amounts of stored body parts found during his arrest.

Characteristics of each of these killers were present in Nelson’s murder of her husband. These shared characteristics were fresh in the public’s mind and sparked further interest. 

Omaima’s defense attorneys argued that she had been a victim of domestic abuse and that her actions were a result of long-term trauma. During the trial, her attorneys used her conservative upbringing and genital mutilation as a defense.

They argued that sex was traumatic for her regularly. They attempted to establish a pattern of abuse from William to show that Nelson’s self-defense was warranted.

However, the prosecution painted a different picture. They portrayed Omaima as a cold-blooded killer who had meticulously planned and executed the murder. They argued that she had an established pattern of conning older men into paying for her lifestyle and that William was the latest victim.

Nelson’s psychiatrist also testified at the trial, mentioning that Nelson claimed to eat her husband’s ribs. She also mentioned Nelson confessed to dressing up while dismembering her husband, donning an outfit of all red before taking on the task. 

Conviction and Sentencing

The jury, some of whom claimed they would be haunted by the images they were presented with forever, found Omaima Nelson guilty of second-degree murder and she was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.

The judge, horrified by the nature of the crime, stated that it was one of the most callous and calculated murders he had ever encountered. The amount of dedicated time it took to dismember William’s body escalated the crime to a different level and disadvantaged the defense.

While the option of parole was still available, the judge handed down the most extreme sentence possible for such a heinous crime. 

Omaima Nelson during the court preceedings

Life Behind Bars

Omaima Nelson’s life behind bars has been marked by continued efforts to understand the motives behind her crimes. Psychologists and criminologists have studied her case in an attempt to gain insights into the complex interplay of psychological factors that lead individuals to commit acts of extreme violence.

She has been up for parole twice, once in 2006 and once in 2011. Both times the panel hearing her case deemed her unfit to return to public life as she did not claim responsibility for her actions and still exhibited violent tendencies.

Her incarceration has been marred by incidents of violence against her fellow inmates. Omaima has struggled to adapt to prison life, and her behavior has remained unpredictable. She will be eligible for parole again in 2026, at which point she may be reformed. 


Omaima Nelson’s trial demonstrated that crimes are not always cut and dry. Gray areas exist where some people find otherwise criminal activity justifiable.

At the same time, the extreme lengths she went to in destroying her husband’s body also demonstrates how even potentially redeemable acts of violence can be overshadowed by further actions.

The unfortunate timing of her crime occurring in the same year that cannibalism haunted the public psyche amplified the public interest in the case. It ensured that she would not escape accountability for her actions.

Although few probably know Nelson’s story now, she will have a chance in just a few years to redeem herself and return to the public sphere. 


Lynch, Rene. “O.C. Woman Sentenced in Grisly Murder”. Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1993.

Schlissel Law Clerk. “Omaima Nelson, Who was Convicted of Killing Her Husband and Cooking Him has Applied to Be Paroled.” Law Offices of Schlissel DeCorpo, LLP, January 13, 2012.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top