The penalty phase in the Boston Marathon bombing trial hit a roadblock Thursday when the two sides could not agree on whether a famed Catholic nun and anti-death penalty advocate should be allowed to testify about what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would experience if sentenced to death at the federal government’s execution prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Sister Helen Prejean is a Louisiana author and the protagonist in the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” based on her autobiography of working with death row inmates there. Defense lawyers want her testify about what she has called the relentless “torture” of someone condemned to die.
According to sidebar transcripts released by the court, government prosecutors on Wednesday strenuously objected to her testifying. The judge, George A. O’Toole Jr., held a lengthy chambers-only conference with the lawyers away from the jury. When they were finished, the judge sent the jurors home without issuing any decision on Sister Prejean.
The judge has yet to decide whether she will testify. If she does, she would be the last witness for the defense.
Tsarnaev was found guilty last month in the 2013 bombings. As now planned, the defense would complete its case on Monday, and the government would have a short rebuttal. Closing statements would be either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Then the panel of seven women and five men will begin deliberating a verdict on his sentencing by the middle of next week. They must weigh two options: death or life in prison without parole at the highly secure federal supermax prison in Colorado.
Tsarnaev never took the witness stand to testify in his defense. He mostly just sat slumped in his chair, seemingly uninterested and detached from the courtroom drama. He did, however, briefly tear up on Tuesday when an aunt was so overcome on the witness stand that she could not continue. He also blew a silent kiss to another aunt after she testified about how he once had been a sweet, happy child before the family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 8 years old.
Three people were killed in the blasts, which defense attorneys say was planned and prepared by his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a subsequent police manhunt. More than 260 people were injured. Seventeen people lost limbs. It was the worst terror assault in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
On Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT