Nun Of 'Dead Man Walking' Fame May Testify For Boston Bomber

2005 file photo of Sister Helen Prejean (Mel Evans/AP)
2005 file photo of Sister Helen Prejean (Mel Evans/AP)

As lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev make their final push to persuade a jury to spare Tsarnaev's life, they may call to the stand a Roman Catholic nun and death penalty opponent made famous in the 1995 movie "Dead Man Walking."

Tsarnaev's lawyers told Judge George O'Toole Jr. on Wednesday that Sister Helen Prejean would be one of their last potential witnesses before they rest their case in the penalty phase of the trial. Jurors will then be asked to decide whether the 21-year-old former college student is sentenced to death or life in prison.

Prosecutors told the judge they would argue to exclude her testimony, according to a court transcript of a sidebar discussion Wednesday.

On Thursday, prosecutors and Tsarnaev's lawyers had two long private discussions with the judge. After the second, the judge dismissed the jury early, saying there were legal issues being discussed. He said he expects the issues to be resolved when they return to court Monday.

Prejean began prison ministry in 1981 in New Orleans and corresponded with Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate who had been convicted of killing two teenagers.

She became Sonnier's spiritual adviser and wrote a best-selling book on her experiences called "Dead Man Walking." The book was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Prejean, 76, was seen in the courthouse Thursday entering a room used by Tsarnaev's lawyers. It was unclear whether O'Toole would allow her to testify Monday.

Tsarnaev was convicted last month in the 2013 marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260. His lawyers admitted he participated in the bombings but have argued that his life should be spared because his older brother was the mastermind of the attack and lured Dzhokhar, then 19, into the plot.

Prosecutors have portrayed him as an equal partner with his brother and a heartless terrorist who placed one of the bombs behind a group of children, killing 8-year-old Martin Richard.

During a sidebar conference with the judge Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb revealed that Tsarnaev wrote "defiant" notes while he lay injured in a hospital bed following his capture four days after the bombing.

Prosecutors and Tsarnaev's lawyers were discussing the testimony of an assistant U.S. marshal who was asked about Tsarnaev's conduct after his arrest.

Defense attorney Miriam Conrad said she wanted to show that Tsarnaev - in his interactions with the marshal - "was never defiant, hostile or uncooperative." She said prosecutors were trying to focus only on a video of him giving his middle finger to the camera in his holding cell on the day of his arraignment, three months after the bombing.

Weinreb disagreed, saying Tsarnaev wrote "one defiant note after another" in his hospital bed.

Tsarnaev had been shot in the face during a gun battle with police and had an injury that left him unable to speak.


Weinreb did not reveal the contents of Tsarnaev's notes.

On Thursday, prosecutor Steven Mellin aggressively cross-examined a prison consultant to try to blunt his description of the strict conditions Tsarnaev will likely face behind bars.

Mark Bezy acknowledged that special communication restrictions can be eased over time for inmates. He said inmates in a special unit of the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado, can have five visits each month and can write and receive an unlimited number of letters from people on an approved list.


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