A fourteen-year struggle for freedom came to a conclusion on Jan. 7 when sex-trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency from life-in-prison by Bill Haslam, Governor of Tennessee. The 30-year-old woman’s story of incarceration for murder, which became a focus of popular media due to the interest of several celebrities, began in Nashville, Tenn.
According to her own testimony, Brown was a 16-year-old runaway from the home of her abusive adopted parents when she got involved as a prostitute in a Nashville sex ring run by a man who went by “Kut-Throat.” On Aug. 7, 2004, Brown was picked up from a Sonic Drive-In by 43-year-old Johnny Allen, a customer of “Kut-Throat.” Brown later explained in court that after being brought to the older man’s house, she felt she was in danger when the man reached under his bed for what she thought was a gun. Brown then took a .40-caliber handgun from her purse and shot the man in the head. Court documents report that police found Allen “lying face down… as if he had been sleeping.” His wallet, watch, clothes and truck had all been stolen. Police then tracked Allen’s stolen white pickup truck to a nearby Walmart where they arrested Brown.
Under Tennessee law, Brown was tried as an adult for aggravated robbery and first degree murder. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison with a chance for parole when she turned 67.
The sentencing gained attention as early as 2011 when a documentary called “The 16 Year Old Killer: Cyntoia’s Story” came out and garnered temporary attention and sympathy for Brown’s cause. However, despite both this and a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court that mandatory life for a minor without parole violate the eighth amendment, Brown’s case remained stagnant until tweets in November by Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and Snoop Dogg sparked international interest in the case and started the “#FreeCyntoiaBrown” movement.
The movement grew in popularity, making Brown the focal point of a massive campaign for her release. Driven by this momentum, Brown’s lawyers appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Aug. 2018, bringing forth contradictory laws of sentencing in Tennessee and creating an opening for the legal debate that would eventually grant clemency to Brown. In response to the hearing, Tennessee reaffirmed that “defendants convicted of first-degree murder on or after July 1, 1995, and sentenced to life in prison become eligible for release after serving a minimum of 51 years in prison.” However, despite this reaffirmation of Tennessee law, Haslam announced that he would continue to consider clemency for the now 30-year-old Bown. Finally, on Jan. 7, 2019, Haslam granted Brown clemency. She is to be freed from prison on Aug. 7, 2019 having served 15 of the original 51-year sentence.
Her case has become a rallying point for activists that seek to protect minors, especially those who are victims of sex trafficking, from being tried as adults. In a public interview, Houston Gordon, a lawyer who worked on the team seeking clemency, said he believes that her story “should be a catalyst for many others.” According to Gordon, “We need to see this as a national awakening. To change the draconian laws that allow children to be placed in adult prisons.”