Cyntoia Brown, a sex trafficking victim who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man when she was 16, was released from prison early on Wednesday, months after she was granted clemency by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
Her release marks the conclusion of a high-profile legal fight that lasted several years, drawing the support of celebrities, criminal justice reform advocates, and racial justice and women’s rights groups.
Brown’s case attracted national attention for a number of reasons. A teenage Brown was arrested in 2004 and convicted in 2006 for shooting and killing a man who solicited her for sex. In the years since her conviction, activists, criminal justice groups, and advocates for victims of sexual violence argued that Brown was unfairly sentenced, saying that the court had not fully acknowledged her story of being sexually abused or her claims of shooting the man in self-defense.
The case was often raised as a symbol of a number of issues, from juveniles receiving life sentences to the criminalization of women doing sex work, and the justice system’s failures when dealing with women affected by sexual violence. Racial justice advocates also argued that many of these issues were compounded by Brown’s race, saying that black women face especially difficult challenges when dealing with the justice system.
In January, Haslam announced that Brown’s sentence would be commuted and she would be released from prison in August. The Tennessean, a local news outlet, reported that she will be required to stay on parole for 10 years and will have to do community service, undergo counseling, and find a job.
Haslam noted in his statement that Brown had taken steps to change her life, including getting a GED and working toward a college degree, during her time behind bars. “Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” he said. “So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”
The clemency announcement was a dramatic conclusion to a years-long fight for Brown’s release. NBC News noted that petitions calling for Brown’s early release had garnered more than half a million signatures, arguing that the then-16-year-old was also a victim and was given too harsh a sentence when she was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting a man who allegedly paid to have sex with her in 2004. Celebrities like Rihanna, LeBron James, and Meek Mill have also amplified Brown’s story by tweeting about the case.
A campaign aimed at getting clemency for Brown focused squarely on Haslam, who at the time was preparing to leave office. Brown was not named on a list of people granted clemency by Haslam’s office in December, fueling concerns that her case would not be addressed before he left office in January.
Some civil rights groups, upon hearing the news of Haslam’s decision earlier this year, expressed frustration that Brown’s release took so long. “We are relieved to learn that Cyntoia Brown’s sentence has been commuted — but we also know that nothing will rewind her years of incarceration,” the National Women’s Law Center tweeted after the announcement. “Black girls deserve better. And #CyntoiaBrown deserves better than a decade of parole.”
Advocates saw Cyntoia Brown’s story as a national example of the ways sexually abused black women and girls are criminalized
Supporters of Brown note that her struggles began in childhood — she was entered into the foster care system as an infant and was a runaway by her early teens. She also is reported to have struggled with a neurodevelopmental disorder due to being exposed to alcohol in her mother’s womb.
In 2004, when Brown was 16, she fatally shot Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent she says paid her for sex. Brown claimed that Allen had frightened her by showing her a collection of guns before they got in bed, and that she shot Allen in self-defense, fearful that he would have shot her.
Here’s how the Marshall Project described Brown’s story in 2017:
According to Brown, he picked her up off the street in a truck and drove her to his home, where the two got into bed. Brown says that, at some point, the man reached suddenly under his bed. She thought he was reaching for a weapon, she says, so she pulled a handgun from her purse on the nightstand beside her and shot him. She took some money and two guns from the home before leaving.
Brown says she was forced into prostitution by Garion “Cut Throat” McGlothen, a pimp, after running away from home in Nashville. Brown also alleges that McGlothen regularly physically abused her and forced her to do drugs. She returned to a hotel room she shared with McGlothen after her alleged crime. It was there that she was later arrested.
Brown was charged and prosecuted as an adult. Prosecutors argued that the shooting was a robbery, noting that Brown took Allen’s money and car after shooting him. Brown countered that she took the items so that she didn’t have to return to her pimp empty-handed — a situation that would have exposed her to violence. But her voice was absent in the trial itself, as Brown’s attorneys told her not to testify.
A Tennessee court convicted Brown of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Her case began attracting increased national attention after the release of a documentary on her life in 2011, which mentioned that Brown had been sexually abused from a young age and was forced into prostitution.
In the years since that film, Brown’s story has been held up by activists as an example of the American justice system’s overly punitive treatment of juveniles, particularly juveniles of color. Groups focused on the intersection of race and sexual violence argued that Brown’s case was a particularly troubling example of the roughly 86 percent of incarcerated women, many of them black, who are victims of sexual violence.
After Brown had served nearly half her life in prison, advocates and local lawmakers argued that she should be released, and pointed to changes in Tennessee’s juvenile laws that amended sentencing guidelines for young adults so that people under 18 can’t be prosecuted for prostitution. If these changes were in effect when her trial occurred, advocates argued, Brown likely wouldn’t have been sentenced to life in prison. Still, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in December that Brown must serve at least 51 years before she is eligible for parole.
Haslam acknowledged the court’s decision in his statement announcing clemency.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” he said. “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.”
Haslam’s last-minute decision to grant Brown clemency enabled her to leave decades before that suggested timeline. In a January statement, Brown thanked the governor, saying that she “will do everything I can to justify your faith in me,”
“My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I’ve been,” she added.