Will Tsarnaev jurors trust a nun, or their eyes?

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean left court after testifying during the penalty phase in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial.
Elise Amendola/AP
Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean left court after testifying during the penalty phase in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial.

It didn’t feel like a dramatic moment as much as an ironic one: an idealistic Catholic nun trying to save the life of a self-admitted jihadist.

Sister Helen Prejean, she of “Dead Man Walking” fame, visited Dzhokhar Tsarnaev five times since March. How she even got to visit remains a bone of contention between the defense, which brought her in, and the government, which is peeved those meetings took place.

In federal court Monday, Miriam Conrad, one of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, asked Sister Helen why she met with him.


“The same reason I meet with people who have done terrible crimes,” the nun replied.

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It’s not to convert them. It’s to accompany them.

“Simply to be by their side,” Sister Helen said. “Let them know they have a dignity.”

Part of that dignity stems from having them come to grips with what they’ve done and take responsibility.

She was struck by his youth when they first met.


“I looked at his face,” she said, and thought, “Oh my God, he’s so young.”

He’s 21 now, 19 when he put a bomb in back of 8-year-old Martin Richard.

They talked about theology. Sister Helen read the Koran in preparation.

They talked about his crimes. They had all sorts of disagreements about Catholicism and Islam.

At some point, Sister Helen said, Tsarnaev expressed some feelings about his victims.


“He said, emphatically, ‘No one deserves to suffer like they did.’ ’’

How sincere did he come across?

“As absolutely sincere,” Sister Helen said. “His response was so spontaneous. I had every reason to believe it was sincere. His face registered it and he kind of lowered his eyes. His voice . . . it had pain in it, actually.”

The natural follow-up question would be: Does he regret taking part in the bombing?

But that never happened and so the jury was left to wonder, is expressing remorse for causing pain the same as expressing remorse for bombing the Boston Marathon in the first place?

It sounded like two different things to me. But the only audience whose perception matters is the jurors, and it’s impossible to say how it played with them.

Sister Helen tried to suggest Tsarnaev regretted the whole thing.

“He was taking it in,” she said, “and he was genuinely sorry for what he did.”

But that was her perception. Not his words.

It’s risky business impeaching the credibility of a Sister of St. Joseph, but that didn’t stop Bill Weinreb, the prosecutor. After some pleasantries, he got right to the point, noting that Sister Helen is not from here, that she is one of the leading death penalty opponents in the United States, that her ministry is funded mostly by her books and lectures.

Basically, Bill Weinreb dismissed her as something of a hired crucifix, an activist who would say anything to save someone from the death penalty.

Miriam Conrad rose to defend Sister Helen’s honor. Is the defense paying you, she asked. “Not a dime,” the nun said.

Would you tell a jury Tsarnaev was sincerely remorseful if you did not believe that?

“No,” Sister Helen said, “I would not.”

For all the legal wrangling over her testimony, Sister Helen was gone in 17 minutes.

Her importance as the defense’s final witness cannot be judged until jurors speak. If they sentence Tsarnaev to death, we’ll know her testimony was irrelevant. If only one juror spares him from the death penalty, it may be Sister Helen Prejean who made it easier for him or her to do so.

As for whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev really is remorseful, the jurors can trust a nun, or their eyes. And their eyes saw nothing — when people were talking right in front of him about losing their limbs or their loved ones — that could possibly convince them that Tsarnaev was remorseful.

Sometimes, as the Apostle Thomas might put it, seeing is believing.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at