BOSTON (CNN) — A Roman Catholic nun famous for counseling the condemned on death row took the witness stand in federal court Monday and vouched for a Muslim jihadist facing a possible death sentence.
Sister Helen Prejean was the final defense witness at the death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She said she believed Tsarnaev was “genuinely sorry” for the pain and suffering he inflicted on his victims.
Prejean is a stanch opponent of the death penalty, but that is not why she testified. Instead, she spoke briefly about five meetings with Tsarnaev since March, when testimony in his trial began. Tsarnaev was convicted of 30 counts, including setting off weapons of mass destruction in a pubic place; 17 counts involve the possibility of the death penalty.
Prejean counsels death-row prisoners, and one of her books was the basis of the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking.” Actress Susan Sarandon, won an Academy Award for playing the role of the death-row nun.
Prejean said she agreed to meet with Tsarnaev “for the same reason I visit with other people who have done really terrible crimes.” Her goal is not to convert the prisons, but to “accompany them and be with them” and give them some dignity
Prejean first met with Tsarnaev, who is 21, at the request of his defense team as testimony began in March. He is being held under strict security measures at a federal prison outside Boston.
“I walked into the room and I looked at his face, and I remembered thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s so young, which he is,’ ” Prejean said.
In the smooth drawl of her native New Orleans, Prejean told jurors how she studied up on Islam and talked religion with Tsarnaev until they developed a rapport over five meetings. Only then did he reveal his feelings about the three spectators killed by the blasts — two women and an 8-year-old boy.
“He said it emphatically: ‘No one deserves to suffer like they did.’ ”
She added that she was convinced he was sincere by the “pain in his voice,” and the way he “kind of lowered his eyes” when he spoke about his victims.
“I had every reason to think he was taking it in and was genuinely sorry for what he did,” Prejean said. “The groundwork and the trust was there. And I knew. I felt it.”
She acknowledged under cross-examination that she was a nationally known opponent of the death penalty with no ties to Massachusetts.
But she said she wasn’t being paid to testify, “not a dime.”
The defense rested after Prejean’s testimony.
Jurors appeared to listen closely when prosecutors called two rebuttal witnesses to testify about the restrictions that would be placed on Tsarnaev if he were incarcerated in Colorado’s ADX Florence, a “supermax” penitentiary known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
Tsarnaev’s mail and conversations would be monitored at all times, Warden John Oliver testified. He might at some point be able to get a prison job, such as cleaning showers, or he might be allowed to move into the general population, Oliver said, but the level of freedom he’d enjoy could be determined only by the Justice Department and the agencies that investigated and prosecuted Tsarnaev, not the prison staff.
Only members of his legal team and immediate family would be permitted to visit him. In such visits, he would be on the other side of a glass window, and they’d speak over telephones. The personal conversations would be monitored, but the legal conversations and all correspondence with his attorneys is considered privileged and private.
The defense has sought to humanize Tsarnaev in the eyes of the jury through more than 40 witnesses who testified over eight days. The witnesses have told the story of a Muslim boy raised in a volatile Russian immigrant family who struggled to adjust to life in the United States as his father slipped into mental illness.
His teachers and high school and college friends say they never suspected the “laid-back,” “kind,” and “caring” Tsarnaev they knew was steeping himself in jihad and plotting mayhem.
But by the time Tsarnaev graduated from high school, his mother and older brother Tamerlan, both known as flashy dressers, began wearing conservative Muslim attire. An imam testified that Tamerlan Tsarnaev once interrupted prayer services at a mosque, calling the imam a “hypocrite” because he compared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Prophet Mohammed.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev also was spending hours on his computer, downloading and sharing radical jihadist material with his wife and brother, according to testimony.
The defense painted Tamerlan Tsarnaev as the mastermind of the bombing and said he bullied his little brother, a college sophomore, into helping to plant the homemade pressure-cooker bombs in the crowd near the marathon finish line.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died days after the 2013 bombing following a gun battle with police and being hit and dragged by a stolen Mercedes SUV driven by the defendant.
The defense case included testimony about Chechen history, the Tsarnaev family’s history and the battle between passion and reason that takes place in the adolescent brain. It also included testimony from teachers, coaches and friends. An array of photos showed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a child in class or on school field trips. He was shown, as a teen, holding a teacher’s baby and interacting with a friend’s dog at a backyard barbecue.
As yet unexplained is how the boy and teen liked by all evolved into what prosecutors portray as a terrorist so heartless that he planted his bomb behind a row of children, and stood waiting for four minutes before slipping away into the crowd as it exploded.