Celebrities and social justice advocates rallied around a former child sex slave – Cyntoia Brown – who was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting her abuser when she was 16. On January 7, 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam ordered an early release for Brown.
According to the Tennessean, Haslam “granted Brown a full commutation to parole…Brown will be eligible for release Aug. 7 on time served and will stay on parole for 10 years.”
Cyntoia Brown said she was afraid of 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen. She said Allen, who had paid to have sex with her and brought her to a house full of guns, was acting strangely before she shot and killed him in 2004 in Nashville, according to the Associated Press. Brown had run away from home and met a young man nicknamed Kutthroat, the AP reported. She said he forced her into drugs and prostitution.
Brown’s case has recently been highlighted in an investigation by Fox 17 News in Nashville and has garnered national attention as a result, along with a trending hashtag, #FreeCyntoiaBrown. The now 29-year-old is being called a sex trafficking victim and many say that with changes in the way cases such as hers are prosecuted today, she would not have been sentenced to life behind bars.
Filmmaker Dan Birman, who created a documentary in 2011 about case, said in a November 16 interview with Fox 17, “She was picked up by a 43 year old man. Cyntoia was 16 years old.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kim Kardashian West Tweeted About Her Case & the Governor Says Brown Took Steps ‘to Rebuild Her Life’
The governor said in a statement that the sentence was “too harsh.”
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said in the statement. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”
Kim Kardashian West tweeted about Cyntoia Brown’s case before the governor’s action to her more than 57 million followers and asked for her case to be reviewed. The reality television star also said she has reached out to her personal attorneys to see if they can help get her a new trial.
“The system has failed,” she tweeted. “It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown”
Her tweet has been retweeted more than 54,000 times and liked more than 136,000 times on Twitter. Other celebrities have also joined the effort, including Rihanna.
A petition on MoveOn.org has been set up to help bring attention to Cyntoia Brown’s case. So far, more than 600,000 signatures have been collected. The petition asks for “mercy and compassion.”
Please view and share this with everyone you know and if you have a heart of mercy and compassion; please sign the petition. Misguided and lost children is an epidemic that we as adults should be responsible for; not the child. Although murder was committed in this case; adults have committed murder and received a lesser than a life sentence. This woman (who is now 25) was only a child at 16 years of age at the time of the incident when her 42 year old victim (a grown man who had lived his life) solicited sex with this child; He had the upper-hand being the adult and should have made the decision to help her seek a better way instead of co-signing on her destruction by soliciting sex. She received life in prison for her victims murder. As of today; she has already served 9 years in prison.
According to a 2006 article in the Tennessean, Allen’s relatives asked the judge, J. Randall Wyatt to punish Brown as severely as possible. “I pray that Cyntoia will never be free into society again,” Randy Allen, the victim’s brother, said in the story. During the trial, the newspaper reported, prosecutors argued that Brown “killed Allen as a ‘thrill’ and to steal from him.”
The story quotes Allen’s mother as saying, “I do not know Cyntoia Brown, and I do not hate Cyntoia. I just hate the act that she did.”
The judge said his main concern was for the victim’s family.
According to the newspaper, the judge also heard from prosecution witnesses who testified that “Brown has had dozens of rule violations while in custody; has attached teachers, nurses, and jail staff.” Prosecutors called her a “dangerous person” and a “professional criminal.” That was years before the governor’s action in 2019, though.
2. Brown Said She Was Frightened by Allen’s Behavior & Shot Him to Escape
Cyntoia Brown was living with a man she said forced her into prostitution. His nickname was Cut-throat and in August 2004 he told her to go out and make some money, AP reports. Johnny Mitchell Allen picked her up on the street, bought her some food and asked her to go back to his house.
Here is what happened that day, according to the Associated Press:
He drove her back to his house where his strange behavior frightened her and made her want to escape. When she couldn’t sneak away, she said she wanted to nap. He lay down with her but didn’t fall asleep. He kept getting up and standing over her. She became more panicked, convinced something was going to happen to her. Finally, she shrugged off his advances and, as he rolled over, she took a gun from her purse and shot him once in the head.
She testified, “He was a sharp shooter in the Army. I’m sitting here thinking if he does something, what am I going to do?” according to Fox 17 Nashville.
You can read court documents from the case below:
Brown admitted that she shot and killed Allen. But she said she was used to being beaten, choked and having a gun pointed at her, and that affected her judgement. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Her case brought attention to child sex and prostitution. In 2011, Tennessee laws were changed to prohibit anyone 18 or younger to be charged with prostitution.
“She was being sex trafficked. The pimp’s name was Kutthroat,” Kathryn Sinback, Davidson County Juvenile Court Administrator told Fox 17.
“She did kill someone, she deeply regrets it, but she was a child and she was being exploited,” Derri Smith, the Founder of End Slavery TN, told Fox 17.”[There’s] no such thing as a child prostitute or a teen prostitute, I think we’ve had to have a cultural mind shift.”
Brown has appealed the verdict, but so far those appeals have been unsuccessful.
Another 2006 article in the Tennessean on the jury verdict said that a taped telephone conversation was played in court in which Brown told her mother she “executed” him. The article notes that prosecutors focused on “Brown’s theft of Allen’s truck, guns and money” and added that an acquaintance of Brown “testified that Brown wanted him to go back to Allen’s home after the killing to help her steal more.”
The article also states that another inmate claimed Brown told her “she killed Allen just to watch him die.”
The prosecutor said to The Tennessean at the time: “I’m afraid this is a dangerous person. And the city, I’m afraid, is safer without her on the streets. We try not to cheerlead about a juvenile that’s getting a sentence like this. But the bottom line is, the community is safer without her on the streets.”
3. A Documentary Called ‘Me Facing Life’ Has Helped Bring Attention to Cyntoia Brown’s Case
PBS’s Independent Lens series released a documentary in 2011 highlighting Cyntoia Brown’s case. Called “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” the documentary was produced and directed by Daniel Birman.
“In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl — who grew up in a reasonable home environment — to this tragic end?”
According to his IMDB page, Birman has produced and directed several documentaries, including “Brace for Impact: The Chesley B. Sullenberger Story.”
Birman told Fox 17 Nashville that Brown came from family of women who were victims of sexual violence. Both her mother and grandmother were rape victims.
“We started the conversation, this is a young girl who’s at the tail end of three generations of violence against women,” Birman told the news station. “She had no chance.”
To add to the tragedy of the case, Brown is also a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which experts say is a “severe mental disease and disorder,” according to The Associated Press. Her birth mother admitted to abusing alcohol while pregnant with Brown.
Richard Adler, a clinical and forensic psychologist, testified in 2012 that Brown had a high IQ, but was functioning then at the age of a 13 or 14 year old, according to the AP.
4. A U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Life Sentences for Teens Has No Impact On Her Case & She Wouldn’t Have Been Eligible for Parole Until She’s 67
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that require states to review life without parole sentences for teens. According to The Tennessean, 24 states have passed laws requiring an automatic review of life sentences for teens after they have served a certain number of years.
But in Tennessee there is already a law that requires a review for life sentences for teens after 51 years. “A life sentence in Tennessee is basically life without parole,” Kathy Sinback, court administrator for the Juvenile Court of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County, told The Tennessean.
An effort has been started to Tennessee’s governor or parole board to look at her case and possibly grant her clemency.
Brown’s case, sparked by the documentary and efforts from reformers, has come in and out of the spotlight since her conviction in 2004. Along with driving reform that led to the change in the Tennessee law barring prostitution charges against those under 18, her case has also been cited by legislators hoping to pass a bill to give teen lifers a second chance. The law would allow for a review of the sentence after 15 or 20 years, which would give Brown a second chance when she is either 31 or 36.
“You are basically taking a kid at age 14 or 15 or 16 and making a decision about the rest of their life based on who they are at that age, and they’re not developed human beings at that time,” Kathy Sinback, her former public defender and the administrator of the Davidson County Juvenile Court, told The Tennessean in 2016. “You have kids at their peak of poor judgment, impulsivity and lack of development and we’re taking that one thing that they do and locking them into sentences that are going to last for the rest of their lives.”
The bill has twice been introduced by Tennessee lawmakers, but they have not been successful in passing it.
5. She Obtained an Associate’s Degree From Lipscomb University While in Prison & Has Worked With the Juvenile Justice System
Cyntoia Brown graduated from Lipscomb University in December 2015 with an associate’s degree she earned while in prison, according to Fox 17 Nashville. She is working toward completing her bachelor’s degree.
Preston Shipp, a former prosecutor turned criminal justice advocate, told Nashville Scene that Brown was his star student when he taught her, saying that he thinks she could be a gifted litigator herself. Shipp wrote in The Huffington Post last year that Brown is a victim who should not have been discarded for life as a murderer:
Cyntoia, a child, was a victim of cruel exploitation before she pulled the trigger, and she did not cease to be a victim thereafter. Recent scientific data has confirmed what common sense has always taught us: children are different from adults. Children, even children who are sixteen and seventeen years old, are not yet physiologically and psychologically formed. Cyntoia is not the same person that she was when she was sixteen. She has overcome her awful past, is compassionate and caring, has a quick wit, and is a straight-A college student. Imprisoning her for the rest of her life constitutes a failure on the part of society to treat children as children and victims as victims.
We must invest in programs that bring about lasting change because we know that people, especially young people like Cyntoia, have great potential to grow and transform into something profound and wholesome and altogether different from their traumatic past. Toward that end, I am grateful that my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, recently announced the creation of a Human Trafficking Court, the goals of which are to identify victims of human trafficking and assist them by providing drug or mental health treatment, job and life skills training, or access to housing. Nashville will be just the fifth city in the country to implement such a court. In so doing, the city implicitly recognizes that people who are forced into sex should be treated as victims, not as criminal defendants.
In spite of everything that has happened to her, Cyntoia has managed to persevere. Had she been a recipient of intervention, counseling, drug treatment, and not merely decades of punishment, there is no telling what she could have achieved.
While behind bars, Brown has also worked with the juvenile justice system as an unpaid consultant.
“I myself can create opportunities to help people [behind bars],” Brown said.
Kathryn Sinback, the Davidson County Juvenile Court administrator, told Fox 17, “She has used her experience to be able to make things better, juvenile justice, human trafficking and safety and security for youth and so I think what she has to offer is invaluable.”
Sinback, who was Brown’s original public defender, told The Tennessean, “We are still working collaboratively to try and work towards changing the laws for juveniles sentenced to life and life without true parole.”