When she was 16, Cyntoia Brown killed a man who bought her for sex. After 15 years served, she’s been granted full clemency.
Cyntoia Brown’s case has tested the limits of our justice system and gained the attention of criminal justice reform advocates and celebrities alike. Here’s a rundown of the basics of her case:
Brown was born to a mother who abused drugs and alcohol and who placed her for adoption. As a teen, Brown ran away from her adoptive family and was taken in by a pimp, who raped her and forced her into prostitution. In 2004, a 43-year-old real estate agent, Johnny Allen, paid $150 to have sex with Brown—then 16—and took her to his home.
Brown claims that she thought the man was going to kill her, so she shot him. Prosecutors claim she killed the man in his sleep in order to steal from him, as she took money, firearms, and the man’s car when she fled the murder scene.
Despite being a minor and an alleged victim of sex trafficking, Brown was tried as an adult, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Under Tennessee law, her first chance at parole would not arrive until 2055—when Brown would be in her late 60s.
But as one of his final acts in office, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam has granted Brown full clemency. Brown will be released from prison on August 7, 2019 and live under supervised parole for ten years.
Brown’s case raised important questions about how we administer justice when convicted criminals are victims themselves—especially when they are underaged.
There is no question that Brown killed Allen. The question is how she should pay for that crime when she was legally a child at the time and the victim of multiple crimes herself. At 16, Brown was under the control of a violent pimp known as “Kut Throat,” who raped her himself and was trafficking her for sex. The age of consent in Tennessee was (and still is) 18, so Allen was guilty not only of soliciting Brown as a prostitute, but also of raping her.
Should a child who has been exploited and victimized in so many ways pay the same price as an adult? In a truly just system, would a child who was the victim of heinous crimes not be granted some grace for killing someone who played an active role in her victimization?
Brown says she will use her freedom to help young girls avoid finding themselves in situations like hers.
Governor Haslam said in a statement regarding his clemency order:
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. 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.”
Those conditions include undergoing counseling, getting a job, and completing community service hours.
Brown has spent part of her 15 years in prison studying, earning excellent grades in her courses, and is slated to complete her bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University in May 2019.
In a statement, Brown said, “Thank you, Governor Haslam, for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.” She also thanked “those at the Tennessee Department of Corrections who saw something in me worth salvaging…”
Brown hopes to make a difference in the lives of girls who may find themselves in circumstances like hers. “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” she said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”
Imprisonment is meant to keep civilized society safe from dangerous criminals. Clearly this woman is not a danger to society, and keeping her behind bars would be a gross misuse of our justice system. Kudos to Governor Haslam for doing the right thing, and best of luck to Ms. Brown with her newfound freedom.