Metro

As trial winds down, nun attempts to humanize Tsarnaev

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean left federal court in Boston.
Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean left federal court in Boston.

Defense lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rested their case against the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber on Monday with testimony from a Catholic nun known internationally for her opposition to capital punishment.

Sister Helen Prejean, whose anti-death penalty book became the basis for the movie “Dead Man Walking,” told jurors that Tsarnaev seemed to express sincere remorse for the suffering of his victims. She said she had met with Tsarnaev five times since March.

“He said emphatically, ‘No one deserves to suffer like they did,’ ” she testified. “His response was so spontaneous … I had every reason to believe it was sincere.”

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Prejean’s testimony was the defense team’s effort to close their case with a sympathetic glimpse into the mind of the 21-year-old convicted of killing four people and injuring more than 260. Tsarnaev showed little emotion when prosecution witnesses delivered heartbreaking testimony about loved ones they lost, and the pain and suffering caused by injuries resulting from the bombings and aftermath. Tsarnaev did not take the stand.

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Prejean, who belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph, was forbidden by the judge from sharing her views on the death penalty, and was allowed to testify only about what Tsarnaev had told her. She did not say whether he had specifically expressed regret for taking part in the Boston Marathon bombing. Before he was arrested, Tsarnaev wrote a message on the inside of a boat where he was hiding that said he did not like killing civilians but it is “allowed” because of American foreign policy.

But, Prejean testified, Tsarnaev’s remarks about the bombing victims’ suffering seemed genuine: She said it “registered” on his face.

“It was — it had pain in it, actually, when he said what he did about nobody deserves that,” she said. “I just had every reason to think that he was taking it in and that he was genuinely sorry for what he did.”

During cross-examination, prosecutor William Weinreb asked Prejean a number of questions, eliciting, among other things, a response from the Louisiana native she had no longstanding association with Massachusetts and was a national anti-death penalty advocate. Prosecutors had vigorously fought to keep her testimony from the jury, but US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. allowed her to take the stand.

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It was not immediately clear how Prejean has been able to meet Tsarnaev, who had been held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer pending his trial. The US Department of Justice enacted special prison restrictions that limit Tsarnaev’s visitors to immediate family members and members of his legal team, which would include lawyers, social workers and investigators. Prejean told jurors that she has long been friendly with a member of the defense team and was able to meet Tsarnaev, whom she identified in the courtroom.

After Prejean’s testimony,Tsarnaev’s lawyers rested their case.

Jurors are scheduled to hear closing arguments Wednesday morning, before they begin their deliberations to determine whether Tsarnaev will spend the rest of his life in prison or be sentenced to death.

The defense presented a photo of a younger Tamerlan Tsarnaev holding Dzhokhar on his shoulder.
Federal Public Defender Office
The defense presented a photo of a younger Tamerlan Tsarnaev holding Dzhokhar on his shoulder.

Prosecutors say Tsarnaev’s crimes were so heinous – the attacks were premeditated, he knew they would be deadly, and he targeted innocent children – that he deserves to die.

Tsarnaev was convicted last month of 30 charges relating to the bombings, the fatal shooting of an MIT police officer, and a firefight with police in Watertown; 17 of those charges allow for the death penalty.

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Tsarnaev’s lawyers acknowledged their client’s guilt — telling jurors “it was him” — during the first phase of the trial. But over the last three weeks, their case has focused on convincing jurors that his accomplice and older brother, Tamerlan, was the mastermind of the bombing and had an outsized influence on his younger brother. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during the confrontation with police in Watertown.

The defense lawyers sought to demonize Tamerlan Tsarnaev, while attempting to humanize the younger brother they have characterized as young, impressionable, and misguided.

Over eight days of testimony, jurors heard from 44 defense witnesses, including some who described Tsarnaev’s troubled upbringing in an immigrant Chechen family that held to cultural traditions that gave deference to the oldest brother in a family. Jurors heard from an expert on Chechnya who described how that country’s struggles for independence became intertwined over the last two decades with the global jihad movement.

Several of Tsarnaev’s former teachers and friends told jurors that he had been considered popular and kind. And some of Tsarnaev’s relatives from his mother’s native Dagestan, in southern Russia, described to jurors the sweet boy they recalled before his family moved to America. Some of those relatives also described seeing Tsarnaev’s mother and older brother become more radical in their Islamic beliefs.

But perhaps the most critical testimony came over the last three days of the trial, as both sides painted contrasting pictures of what Tsarnaev’s life in prison might look like. A consultant for the defense team testified that the conditions at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado are so strict that prisoners are confined to a single-inmate cell for 23 hours a day, and they have limited email and phone communication.

The defense team suggested to jurors that it would be better to send Tsarnaev there than to keep him in the public eye during the lengthy time it would take to appeal a death sentence.

But prosecutors have argued that death is the only appropriate punishment for Tsarnaev, arguing that there is no way to be certain where Tsarnaev would be held if sentenced to life in prison, and whether strict prison conditions could improve over time.

Prosecutors pointed out that the special administrative conditions that have been placed on Tsarnaev have already been loosened since he has been in prison.

“The Bureau of Prisons, at all times, is seeking to lessen restrictions on inmates, is that fair to say?” Assistant US Attorney Steve Mellin asked one witness.

Several jurors, including the forewoman, took copious notes during the testimony. Some told the judge during the juror screening process that they could hand out a death sentence if they find it is warranted, but thought a sentence of life in prison could be a worse punishment.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.