“It’s easy to kill a monster,” says Sister Helen Prejean, death-penalty abolitionist and author of the international bestseller Dead Man Walking.

“But if you look into the face of a human being who did unspeakable crimes, it is very different to kill them," she added. 

It’s easy for some to write that person off as someone not worthy of living, but Prejean’s view forces us to look at the real person sitting on death row awaiting their execution. They are someone’s son or daughter. They may be someone’s father, mother, sister or brother. They are a person with a story.

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It’s a story that often involves being wounded as a child or abused. They are often poor. Many grew up with violence as a daily occurrence in their lives and do not know other ways to respond.

Studies show that those on death row in the United States experienced almost four times the amount of violence during childhood than the average person.

When you meet them, look into their eyes and hear their stories, the monsters become human beings. 

I live in Chicago, Illinois, a city known around the United States and in some parts of the world for its high rate of gun violence. In 2016 the city reported 791 homicides, more than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

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It’s easy to sit on the couch in another part of Chicago from where most of the violence happens or in a town far away and pass judgment on those involved in the shootings or who are victims.

“Those people deserve what they get. They choose those paths.” Or “If they just got a job they could get out of those neighborhoods.”

My work as a journalist in the city has taken me to the neighborhoods with the most gun violence. I have met the men and women and children who some write off as “those people.”

They have taught me that the cause of violence is not black and white. Many of the folks caught up in it only know violence. They grew up with it. Many have a friend or family member who was shot or killed. Child abuse and trauma is prevalent in many homes. 

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Young people know more gang members and hustlers than they do those with 9-to-5 jobs. Many had a parent or parents in and out of jail or addicted.

It’s not an easy life. This doesn’t excuse when someone turns to violence in any given case but it does explain how it may have happened and, most important, it takes them from being an object on the evening news to a subject with real fears, real challenges and real pain.

Just like those people who end up on death row.

“Human beings do unspeakable acts, and I am outraged over those acts,” Prejean says. “But when you meet the real person and you meet a human being, you know you’re not meeting a monster.”

By Joyce Duriga. Author of “Helen Prejean: Death Row’s Nun” 

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