Sister Helen Prejean has plenty of experience speaking with America’s worst criminals, so it was natural she’d be asked to meet with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber. The two met five times, she said during testimony on Monday as a defense witness in Tsarnaev’s trial.
“He was taking it in, and genuinely sorry for what he did,’’ Prejean said. “He was very open and receptive. He was pleasant. He was good … I felt it was easy to establish a rapport.’’
She certainly has a lot of practice establishing that rapport. Tsarnaev was just another of the many convicted prisoners facing the death penalty that have called Prejean their spiritual advisor. Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, began communicating with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana in the 1980s, and became an advisor to him and others on death row.
She detailed her experiences with these inmates in her 1993 non-fiction book Dead Man Walking. It topped The New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks and has been translated into 10 languages, her website says.
Susan Sarandon portrayed Prejean in the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, winning an Academy Award for her performance. Sean Penn, who portrayed Sonnier, was nominated for Best Actor.
Prejean’s interactions with Tsarnaev weren’t too different from the interactions between Sarandon and Penn, at least according to her testimony on Monday. Prejean said that Tsarnaev expressed sympathy for his victims during their talks.
“He said it emphatically. He said, ‘No one deserves to suffer like they did,’’’ Prejean testified. “He kind of lowered his eyes. It was his voice … it had pain in it.’’
“His response was so spontaneous,’’ she said. “It’s not like he was hedging. … His face registered it.’’
Prosecutors had attempted to keep Prejean from testifying given her lengthy history as a death penalty opponent, but Judge George O’Toole ruled her testimony admissable. She was the last witness called in Tsarnaev’s defense.