On the night of August 6, 2004, Cyntoia Brown, then 16, remembers starting her evening off at a hotel room with a drug dealer who repeatedly hit her and forced her into prostitution. “We were either getting high or having sex,” she testified before a judge in Tennessee in November of the same year. “That’s all we ever did. He said that I was slipping, that I was starting to become a slouch. And that I needed to get out and get on my grind and get some money.”
Brown said she then got a ride to an area in east Nashville where she knew she could make some money, per her abuser’s orders. There, she met 43-year-old Johnny Allen, who took her to his home. They agreed to a fee of $150.
During their conversation, Brown said she grew increasingly nervous, as Allen allegedly spoke about being a sharpshooter in the military and showed her a number of guns. Later, Brown said, “he was just stroking me, and then he just grabbed me in between my legs, like, he just grabbed it real hard. He just gave me this look, it was like, a very fierce look, and it just sent these chills up my spine. I’m thinking he’s going to hit me or do something like that. But then, he rolls over and reaches—he’s reaching to the side of the bed … so I’m thinking he’s not going to hit me, he’s going to get a gun.”
Brown’s attorney asked her what she did next. “I just grabbed a gun and I shot him,” she replied.
The testimony, captured in a 2011 documentary titled Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, came during a transfer hearing that determined Brown be tried as an adult instead of a juvenile. Although she argued her actions were in self-defense, she was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 51 years.
In recent days, however, Brown’s case has been getting renewed attention on social media. Celebrities like Rihanna, TI, and Kim Kardashian have posted about how the system has treated Brown unfairly, and a petition calling for the president to issue her a pardon has garnered more than 200,000 signatures.
“Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” Rihanna wrote on Instagram.
The documentary, which followed Brown for seven years, also shed light on a history of abuse and violence in Brown’s family. As the BBC reported, the film reveals “how a dark cycle of abuse began with Cyntoia's grandmother, who says her daughter was the product of rape, and cemented itself with her mother Georgina Mitchell, who gave birth at 16, turned to alcohol and crack cocaine, and spent years in prison herself.”
Dr. William Bernet, a forensic psychiatrist featured in the documentary, told filmmakers: “This is a kid who had some horrible life experiences. Many, many bad things happened to her. And it wasn’t just an isolated bad thing. It was a pattern of bad things. And this shaped the way she related to people”
Since Brown—who’s now 29, working toward finishing her bachelor’s degree, and has been described as “a model prisoner”—was sentenced, Tennessee has changed the way it views minors and prostitution. Instead of arresting them, a statute requires law enforcement “provide the minor with the telephone number for the national human trafficking resource center hotline and release the minor to the custody of a parent or legal guardian.” Advocates are also trying to change the law to allow teens sentenced to life to be allowed a mandatory 15- or 20-year review of their sentences.
Derri Smith is the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee. In a blog post published today in light of the renewed attention to Brown’s case, Smith argues that had Brown been sentenced today, she would have been seen as a victim of human trafficking, not a criminal, and that it’s time for “a cultural mindset shift around the issue of human trafficking”
Smith tells Broadly that her organization has been advocating on Brown’s behalf for over a year now. “The first thing you notice about her, besides how young and tiny she is, is that she is incredibly smart,” she says.
Human trafficking has often been described by advocates as an invisible crime: Too often, people think these horrors don’t happen in their cities and neighborhoods. “When I first started End Slavery Tennessee, everyone said, ‘That doesn’t happen here,’” Smith says. “Cyntoia’s case brings a face to the crime.”
Her hope, she continues, is that this public awareness “will lead to improvement in court systems and laws and be instrumental in changing public perceptions of this crime.” As for Brown, Smith say the best way to support her petition for clemency is to write letters to the Tennessee Board of Parole and to Governor Bill Haslam.