Sister Helen Prejean Says Dzhokhar Tsarnaev 'Genuinely Sorry'

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The jury in the Boston Marathon bomber case is just days away from starting its sentencing deliberations. The defense rested its case on Monday after Sister Prejean testified.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Boston today, a renowned anti-death penalty activist took the stand on behalf of convicted marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The defense has now rested. Tsarnaev's lawyers have been trying to persuade jurors to sentence him to life in prison instead of death. NPR's Tovia Smith was in courtroom. And, Tovia, begin by telling us more about this witness and what she had to say.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, she was brief, but her testimony was very significant. Remember, Tsarnaev has been sitting basically stone-faced through just about this entire trial, leaving jurors with absolutely no clue what's going on in his head. So this witness was the first to shed a little light. As you said, she is a death penalty opponent - Sister Helen Prejean. She wrote the book that became the movie, "Dead Man Walking." And she says she met with Tsarnaev five times and that when they spoke about his crimes and his victims, he said, quote, "no one deserves to suffer like they did." Sister Helen says that Tsarnaev lowered eyes, his voice sounded pained. She says she could see the emotion in his face, and she says she came away believing that he's, quote, "genuinely sorry for what he did." I should say that her testimony was clearly limited legally. There was a lot she couldn't say, but she did manage to signal to jurors that there might be - might be - some remorse.

CORNISH: And what did prosecutors say in response?

SMITH: They were short and to the point. They made sure that jurors understood that Sister Helen is coming at this from a biased perspective, that she opposes the death penalty in any and all cases. But then the defense got one more turn to question her, and she insisted she would not tell jurors that Tsarnaev was remorseful if she didn't believe it.

CORNISH: What about the jurors? Did they react at all?

SMITH: Hard to say what they were thinking. I think this might be one of those cases where jurors heard what they were already inclined to hear because I think there was enough ambiguity in the language that Sister Helen quoted from Tsarnaev about the victims. She said no one should have to suffer like they did. Some jurors might think that proves remorse. Others might think that it just reiterates what Tsarnaev wrote in the boat where he was hiding. Remember, he wrote he doesn't like killing innocent people, but that it was justified in this case. So those jurors might well be wondering why there wasn't more that sister Helen was reporting from their conversations, why there wasn't a more explicit, even tearful apology from Tsarnaev to report.

CORNISH: And there was one more witness today, Tovia. What was his story?

SMITH: This was another warden talking about what life would be like for Tsarnaev in maximum security prison if he gets life. The defense suggested at the beginning that sentencing Tsarnaev to live out decades in prison just thinking about what he did might actually be more punishing than a quick execution. So they're trying to show how tough prison would be, but prosecutors tried to show that there's no guarantee that Tsarnaev would not kind of graduate out of the most severe restrictions. And the witness today offered more detail on how Tsarnaev would get visitors and rec time and TV in his cell. He could work a prison job or work on a college degree and could even one day write a book from prison.

CORNISH: Let's talk about what happens next. When does the jury begin to deliberate?

SMITH: That happens Wednesday after closing arguments, and all it takes is one juror opposed to death and Tsarnaev would automatically get life instead. And, of course, it doesn't matter if that juror opposes death out of some sense of mercy - in other words, because a juror thinks death is too harsh - or because a juror thinks that prison would actually be harsher. Either way, Tsarnaev would get life.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston. Tovia, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.