At 16, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who bought her for sex. Now, her fate rests in the hands of Tennesse Governor Bill Haslam.
Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in 2004: She told a Tennessee judge that she shot and killed 43-year-old Johnny Allen—a stranger who’d picked her up for sex in an area known for prostitution—because she was scared he was reaching for a gun as they laid together in his bed. She also testified that the only reason she was with Allen in the first place was because the drug dealer she was living with in a hotel told her she needed to get out "and get some money."
Despite her argument of self-defense—and the fact that she was a minor who had been forced into prostitution—Brown was sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility until she’s 67.
But today, for the first time since she was convicted, Brown, now 30, had the opportunity to make her case for a second chance at freedom. This morning, she appeared before the state parole board inside the Tennessee Women’s Prison, where she’s being held, to make a plea for clemency. Fourteen people testified in support of her plea, noting her academic achievements; friends of the victim also appeared before the panel to ask that Brown remain in prison.
Shortly after the three-hour-long hearing concluded, the seven-member panel announced their decision: Two members voted to reduce Brown’s sentence and be released on time served; two members voted against her petition for clemency; and the final two members recommended her current sentence be reduced to 25 years—meaning she’d stay in prison for an additional 11 years before she’s eligible to be released on parole. (One member recused himself.)
Without any clear direction from the parole board, it’s now up to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to decide whether or not to grant Brown clemency. Since taking office in 2011, Haslam hasn't granted any clemency petitions, though that could change as he nears the end of his term. As of press time, an online petition calling for the governor to take action on Brown’s case has garnered nearly 500,000 signatures.
Earlier this year, Brown’s attorneys also filed an appeal in federal court challenging her sentence. Their argument is that Brown may not have had the mental capacity to be convicted of first-degree murder because she suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in utero. They also say her life sentence is unconstitutional because she was a child at the time. The case is set to be heard in front of a three-judge panel in Cincinnati on June 14.
Yasmin Vafa is the executive director of Rights4Girls, a human rights organization that has been following Brown’s case. She tells Broadly that the parole board’s decision is "disheartening."
"I think it’s really a statement of our collective failure to have intervened and protected this child, who was forced to take her safety into her own hands," she says. She adds, however, that it’s important to know that Brown’s case is a tragic example of a larger issue.
In 2015, Rights4Girls and other advocacy groups published a report on the "abuse-to-prison pipeline," a term they coined to describe the experiences of girls and young women being punished and ultimately incarcerated for essentially being victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. "We see this over and over again," Vafa explains, "and unfortunately it’s often marginalized girls, girls of color, girls from impoverished communities and backgrounds who suffer the most. We think it’s really critical to talk about what actually happened to them and really call out who in our society gets to be seen as a child, and who in our society gets to be seen as a victim."
The most profound way society fails girls like Brown, Vafa says, is failing to see them as victims and survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. "When we talk about the #MeToo movement right now and how that’s impacting the lives of countless women and girls around the world, what we want to make clear is that this is what #MeToo looks like for some of our most vulnerable and marginalized girls around the country."