Who is Cyntoia Brown?
After spending half her young life in a Tennessee prison for shooting a man who forced her into sex when she was just 16, Cyntoia Brown is finally free on parole — with a college degree and a book deal.
Brown, now 31, was released Wednesday from the Tennessee Prison for Women after serving 15 years, according to the Department of Corrections.
Her saga started on the night of Aug. 6, 2004, when she met Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, in the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In in Nashville and agreed to be paid $150 for sex.
Later that night, she shot Allen when he was asleep and nude with a .40-caliber handgun from her purse. She was arrested and later tried as an adult even though she was a still a minor, convicted of first-degree premeditated murder for killing Allen. She testified it was in self-defense: She’d panicked after seeing him reach for something that could’ve been a gun — his house was full of them.
She was also convicted of first-degree robbery, stealing the dead man’s wallet after shooting him in the back of his head, according to court documents.
Experts testified that Brown may have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that may have impaired her judgement the night of the murder. Her attorneys even argued in January 2018 that Brown was likely to die in prison before reaching her mandatory 51 years in prison due to the incurable illness her mother likely gave her.
Brown’s biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, was an alcoholic, started using crack cocaine when Cyntoia was 8 months old, putting her up for adoption soon after. Brown also used drugs and was on a “cocaine bender” in the weeks leading up to her killing Allen, but a doctor testified it didn’t explain her behavior, according to court documents.
At 16, Brown ran away from her adoptive parents, living in a motel with her abusive pimp, Garion L. McGlothen, whose street name was “Cut Throat,” or sometimes just “Cut.” He sexually assaulted and trafficked her out to other men for money, a cycle sex traffickers use to entrap victims in underage prostitution. She testified that he almost killed her once by choking her.
Brown’s unjust conviction was put in the spotlight after PBS aired a documentary made about her in 2011, as well as celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna advocating for her freedom in 2017 with the viral hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Her case inspired Tennessee to enact criminal justice reform, changing its laws to allow incarcerated minors an earlier chance at earning parole.
In December 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Brown must serve a 51-year sentence before she could be eligible for parole. But in an unlikely turn of events a month later, then-Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam commuted her life sentence, earning her a far earlier liberation date.
"I’m blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come. I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation," said Brown in the days leading up to her release.
In prison, Brown earned her GED and an associate degree with a 4.0 GPA through Lipscomb University.
She recently got married, while still in prison, and she'll be starting her new life on the outside with a book deal. "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System," will be released Oct. 15.
For the next 10 years, Brown will be under supervised parole in a reentry plan that includes going to counseling, committing to regular community service, and pursuing her bachelor’s degree.
Advocates have rallied around Brown’s case, calling it an example of the "sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline" that represents the unjust imprisonment of child sex trafficking victims, especially girls of color. When Brown was arrested 15 years ago, much of the U.S, including Tennessee, didn’t have anti-trafficking laws that considered U.S citizens — especially girls between 12 and 14-- to be the most vulnerable victims of the sex trade.
Cover: In this May 23, 2018, file pool photo, Cyntoia Brown, a woman serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was a 16-year-old prostitute, smiles at family members during her clemency hearing at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. (Lacy Atkins/The Tennessean via AP, Pool, File)