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May 11, 2015

Will and should famed abolitionist nun, Sister Helen Prejean, be allowed to testify at Boston bombing sentencing trial?

Images (4)The question in the title of this post is the interesting legal question to be resolved this week in federal court in Boston as the defense team finalizes its mitigation case on behalf of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  This Boston Globe piece, headlined "Will judge allow nun to testify for Tsarnaev defense?," provides some context:  

While everybody in and around Boston is celebrating Mother’s Day and spring sunshine, George O’Toole has something weighing on him. O’Toole is a judge and has presided over the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with his typical geniality. But even genial judges have to make tough decisions.

The trial, which began with jury selection in the first week of January, and testimony in the first week of March, is winding down. If all goes to plan, and it seldom does in trials, the jury could be sent away by the end of this week, ready to contemplate sentencing Tsarnaev to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But before any of that happens, George O’Toole has to decide whether a 76-year-old Roman Catholic nun can testify as part of the effort to save a 21-year-old Islamic extremist from death. The nun in question is Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, and if you ask what that means, you never had nuns.

Sister Helen Prejean is an icon of the antideath penalty movement, something of a celebrity. “Everybody knows Sister Helen,” said David Hoose, a Northampton defense attorney who has worked on death penalty cases. And it’s true, a lot of Americans do know her, at least vicariously. They know her as Susan Sarandon, the actress who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.”

Twenty years after Sister Helen became the face of the antideath penalty movement in America, she is here in Boston, poised, if O’Toole allows it, to be the last witness for the defense in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

No one saw this coming. As prominent as the New Orleans-based Sister Helen is in the antideath penalty movement, she is not known for testifying in death penalty cases. But she wanted to get involved in this case, somehow. Inevitably, she found herself in the defense camp....

[A]s someone who has counseled death row inmates, Sister Helen can impart [the] message ... that a death sentence hardly guarantees death.

Since 1988, when the federal government got back in the business of executing people, the government has sought the death penalty in nearly 500 cases. In 232 of those cases, there was a guilty verdict where jurors had to decide between life and death, and in 79 cases they chose death. Of those 79, only three have been executed. It’s possible that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be No. 4 if the jury sentences him to death, but the odds are against it.

In the meantime, Judge O’Toole has to decide on the government’s motion to exclude Sister Helen’s testimony. In death penalty cases, the defense is given a wide berth in calling witnesses as they present mitigating evidence.  Even if O’Toole is on the fence about the relevance of Sister Helen’s testimony, and is inclined to tightly limit the scope of what she can speak to, he might not want to risk a reversal of the whole trial over one final witness.

The defense may only want Sister Helen to repeat one of her stock lines: “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” That has been the underlying message of the defense all along. That Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as a human being, is more than the unspeakable, unforgivable things he did one week in April 2013.

In this post at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger reasonably asks "What does Helen Prejean know that is relevant to the Tsarnaev case?".  I think Kent (and others in the comments) make sound points that could provide a legal justification for the district judge here precluding Prejean from being able to testify at the sentencing hearing on behalf of the Boston bomber.  But I also think, as the article above hints, judges are generally disinclined to preclude completely any offered defense testimony at the sentencing-phase of a capital trial.  I thus predict that the district judge here will allow Prejean to testify in some limited way if the defense presses aggressively for her to be a witness.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: Apparently Prejean started to testify not long after I wrote this post. This new USA Today article, headlined "Sister Helen Prejean: Tsarnaev 'genuinely sorry for what he did'," starts with this account of what transpired:

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on Monday in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial. She said he is "genuinely sorry for what he did," and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing's victims.

"He said it emphatically," Prejean said. "He said no one deserves to suffer like they did." She added, "I had every reason to think he was taking it in and he was genuinely sorry for what he did."

Prejean said she had met with Tsarnaev five times since early March and that he "kind of lowered his eyes" when he spoke about the victims. His "face registered" what he was saying. She interpreted his remorseful sentiment "as absolutely sincere," she said.

Prejean said she talked with Tsarnaev about both their faiths: his Islam and her Catholicism. "I talked about how in the Catholic Church we have become more and more opposed to the death penalty," she said, quickly drawing an objection from the prosecution.

Defense attorney Miriam Conrad, questioning Prejean, interjected, "Stop you right there." Conrad asked Prejean what she heard in Tsarnaev's voice she he spoke about the victims' suffering. "It had pain in it," she said.

May 11, 2015 at 09:55 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I'd agree that her testimony could be relevant on that point -- but if and only if the prosecution were allowed to introduce rebuttal evidence showing (1) attempts to abolish LWOP sentences (so the jury would understand that some would be effectively seeking Tsarnawv's eventual release; (2) the fact that there could still be habeas and Cotán no is petitions with an LWOP sentence (so the jury would know that giving LWOP would not truly be the end of legal challenges); and (3) the fact that terrorists have listed release of past LWOP terrorism prisoners (including the "Blind Sheik") among their demands, such that an LWOP prisoner might be a lifelong bargaining chip. It seems to me that if the defense wants to present a partial slice of info on the consequences of a life sentence, then the prosecution is entitled to present this information to avoid misleading the jury.

Posted by: tom | May 11, 2015 10:55:33 AM

She provides an expert voice on the value of not executing even the "worse of the worst" and don't really see the point of not having her testify. Prof. Berman provides further suggestions at the link. I don't know how relevant some of the points mentioned in the first comment are but if she brings up things that make them so, sure. No problem.

Posted by: Joe | May 11, 2015 11:22:55 AM

ETA: Duly noting that some of what she said from this account comes off as pablum, I reaffirm my comment -- she met him multiple times, is an expert on the abolitionist side, and is akin to having a therapist or some other counselor testify regarding his state of mind & so forth. How much it is impresses is left to the reader, but see little reason to not let her testify.

Posted by: Joe | May 11, 2015 12:24:47 PM

Is it a bad day or impetuous to plan an anti personnel bombing for months? Or, to see a little kid near it and not say a word to make him move away? Or to regret that so few died?

Prejean is an evil person advocating for pure evil, and for giving the enemy an immune license to anyone in his reach in prison.

If there were real justice the purely evil subhuman lawyer filth who closed the city afterwards would flogged then executed. These are filthy traitor and terrorist collaborators, amplifying the damage from the terrorist attack.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 11, 2015 1:47:56 PM

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