Is there a Sr. Helen Prejean effect?

by Dawn Araujo-Hawkins

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It’s not every day that a Catholic sister trends on Twitter (and believe me, I’m on Twitter enough to know), but yesterday, millions of tweets had Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean on the trending list after she was called to testify on behalf of the defense in convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s death penalty trial.

Prejean’s appearance at the trial wasn’t entirely unexpected; in court transcripts released last week, Tsarnaev’s attorneys said they were planning to call her as a witness, although it was not immediately clear that she would actually be allowed to testify. Furthermore, it was unclear what Prejean would say if she did indeed take the stand. Yes, she’s opposed to capital punishment generally, but what did she know about Tsarnaev specifically?

Apparently quite a bit.

As Prejean revealed Monday, she has met with Tsarnaev five times since March – and she told the jury Tsarnaev was sorry, that he had confessed to her he didn’t believe anyone should have to suffer the way his victims did.

"I had every reason to think he was taking it in and he was genuinely sorry for what he did,” she’s reported to have said.

Closing arguments in this second phase of the trial are scheduled for tomorrow, and then the jury will decide if Tsarnaev will face execution or spend the rest of his life in prison. That is, they will attempt to bridge the chasm between two judicial cultures: one federal, one state. Massachusetts, after all, made capital punishment illegal in 1982 and hadn’t used it in the 35 years prior to that. Last month, Massachusetts’s Catholic bishops said they opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as did the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard who was killed in the bombing.

I think what’s interesting about this case is that we know Tsarnaev is guilty. There’s zero chance that he’s put to death and then 10 years from now we find out we had the wrong guy, as has so often been the case in the United States. And we know Tsarnaev is a smart kid with no history of mental illness.

So what we’re seeing in the opposition to his potential execution is not opposition to an imperfect system; no one is talking about preventing the execution of an innocent man or of someone incapable of understanding either his crime or his punishment. No, this opposition is purely about the right we have as human beings to take another person’s life – whether that person has committed a heinous crime or not. And I don’t know that we’ve talked about that in the national arena for quite some time.

Obviously we can’t know what the jury will decide about Tsarnaev’s fate, but regardless of the sentence, I hope real work is done in the coming weeks. I’d like to think that if millions of people can tweet about Helen Prejean, then there are millions of people willing to have conversations about life and death and what it means to bear the image of God.

I can’t even begin to imagine what people in Boston must be thinking and feeling right now. I would guess there’s still some anger and some sadness. But I hope there’s also grace like that expressed by Martin Richard’s parents. I hope there’s peace.

And who knows? Maybe the jury will surprise us.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]

More articles on GSR about Sr. Helen Prejean's ministry:
No point in adding more death
Sr. Helen Prejean urges students to help abolish death penalty in U.S.