Over the past few months, jurors have heard in detail how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have committed the Boston Marathon bombings. In the past few weeks of the trial's sentencing phase, they heard why he may have carried out the bombings. Until this morning, however, they had no idea whether he was sorry about it.
With his life hanging in the balance, Mr. Tsarnaev's last line of defense took the form of the diminutive, bespectacled Catholic nun Helen Prejean.
Sister Prejean, famous for her vocal opposition to the death penalty and for being portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film “Dead Man Walking,” had been the focus of days of legal arguments over whether and how she could testify.
Early speculation had suggested that she may testify – as she has in the past – to the relentless “torture” of death row, but within minutes her real purpose on the stand became apparent.
Under questioning from defense attorney Miriam Conrad, Prejean testified in her Louisiana accent that she had met, at the request of the defense, five times with Tsarnaev between March and a few days prior to testifying. She described him as “pleasant” and “respectful” during their conversations, which ranged from her childhood in Louisiana to their respective faiths, Catholicism and Islam.
“What do you remember about that first meeting with him?” asked Ms. Conrad.
“I walked in the room and looked at his face and thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s so young,’ ” said Prejean.
“I’m not sure he’d ever met a nun before, but he was very open and receptive,” she added.
Conrad then asked if Tsarnaev had ever expressed to her “his feelings about what happened to the victims in this case?”
Prejean replied that Tsarnaev spoke to her “emphatically” on the victims of the bombings. Three people were killed and 264 injured after two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April 2013. Tsarnaev was found guilty of all 30 counts against him in April.
“He said no one deserves to suffer like they did,” she said.
Prejean’s testimony was strictly limited, and was interrupted by frequent objections from the prosecution. She didn’t speak to her well-known opposition to the death penalty, testifying only to what Tsarnaev said to her.
Conrad asked in multiple rephrased questions how Prejean knew that Tsarnaev was being sincere.
“His response was so spontaneous,” Prejean said. “It was not like he was hedging. He just said no one deserves to suffer like that, and I had every reason to believe he was sincere.”
She added that, when Tsarnaev said it, he “kind of lowered his eyes, and his voice,” and that his voice “had pain in it.”
“I had every reason to think he was taking it in and was genuinely sorry for what he did,” she added.
Prejean’s perceptions of Tsarnaev were designed to provide a critical insight whether Tsarnaev feels any remorse for his crimes. Besides his infamous messages scrawled on the inside of the boat he was found in several days after the bombings, Tsarnaev’s voice has been completely absent from the trial. Besides a few tears shed during testimony from his relatives in Russia, the defendant has barely shown any emotion at all.
Short of an admission of remorse from Tsarnaev himself – which was unlikely, given the risks of him testifying in his own defense – an admission-by-proxy from a witness like Prejean may have been the closest the defense could get.
Later this week, the jury will begin deliberations over whether Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death, or to life in prison without parole. The prosecution called two rebuttal witnesses to speak to inmate conditions at the maximum security “ADX” prison facility in Florence, Colo. – Tsarnaev’s likely destination should he not go to death row.
One of them, the warden at ADX, John Oliver – described among other things the 13 criteria that would enable an inmate in ADX’s ultra-restrictive H Unit to get moved to a less-restrictive wing of the facility. These criteria include the inmate’s behavior while at ADX, as well as his criminal history and potential risks to the safety of the inmate or other inmates.
“Do one of those factors include notoriety of the case?” asked prosecutor Steve Mellin.
“Yes,” Mr. Oliver replied.
On cross examination, defense attorney Tim Watkins asked the warden if there are inmates who would see it as a “sign of honor” to “do harm to someone of the Muslim faith?”
“I don’t know that to be a fact,” Oliver replied after a government objection was overruled.
“Are there inmates who would see it as a sign of honor to go after an inmate who killed, say, a child?” asked Mr. Watkins.
“In general in the prison system I believe that to be true,” Oliver answered.
The defense rested by mid-morning. By noon the prosecution had rested its case against Tsarnaev, as well. Judge George O’Toole told the jury that closing statements will be heard on Wednesday. After that, the jury will begin to deliberate whether or not to sentence Tsarnaev to death.