On Monday morning, Cyntoia Brown—a Tennessee trafficking victim who received a life sentence after fatally shooting the 43-year-old man who paid for her when she was 16—learned she can finally begin thinking about what life may look like outside of prison. After being incarcerated for 15 years, Brown was granted clemency by Gov. Bill Haslam: She will be released from prison in August and remain on parole for 10 years.
“This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” Haslam said in a statement. “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. 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.”
In 2004, Brown fatally shot Johnny Allen, an East Nashville man she’d previously had no relationship with. They met after her abusive boyfriend who she said had forced her into prostitution kicked her out of their hotel room so she could earn money. Brown says she shot Allen in self-defense as they laid in his bed together because she feared he was reaching for a gun.
Despite her age, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility until the age of 67.
In a statement released to local media outlets, Brown thanked her lawyers, supporters, and those who helped her in school—she’s one course away from finishing her bachelor’s degree. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been,” she said.
Brown’s pending freedom comes after many years of her case being spotlighted as an example of how unfair the criminal justice system is toward victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. In 2011, a filmmaker released a PBS documentary titled Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which followed Brown for six years after the shooting. Several years later in 2017, a number of celebrities, including Rihanna, caught wind of Brown’s case and posted about it on social media. Around the same time, an online petition calling for the governor to take action on her case was established; it had garnered more than 636,000 signatures. The hashtag #freeCyntoia also took off then.
Amidst legal battles and a plea for clemency before the state parole board, several grassroots organizations also began working to draw attention to Brown’s case. In December, for example, organizers with Black Lives Matter Nashville started a campaign to encourage citizens to reach out to Gov. Haslam and other state representatives, citing this as “a matter of human rights.” Other national organizations, such as Moms Rising, also released statements in support of Brown. “Her sentence flies in the face of our nation’s standards for the sentencing of children,” a spokesperson for MomsRising said in a statement. And most recently, local activists hosted a rally in Nashville on January 5, calling for clemency for Brown.
Derri Smith is the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, an anti-trafficking organization that has worked on Brown’s case for more than two years now. They first became acquainted with Brown when she reached out to Smith for help on her capstone project, she tells Broadly. During that time, she’s testified on behalf of Brown during her parole hearing, communicated with the governor on her behalf, and worked to help people understand the issues regarding this clemency decision.
“We have a lot of survivors we work with who have various kinds of criminal charges … but she was 16,” Smith says. “She was given a life sentence, so that makes her stand out ... she was clearly trafficked and exploited.”
Smith says it’s hard to say whether the social media uproar and subsequent national attention affected Brown’s case, especially considering “the incredible team” the young woman had, including pro-bono legal representation. But, she adds, Monday’s decision gives others who are in similar situations hope.
“I know the survivors that we serve, and there are over 200 each year, have been watching this case carefully … they’re working so hard on their own rehabilitation,” Smith says. “If someone like Cyntoia, who’s worked so hard on her own rehabilitation, if she hadn’t been given clemency, the message would have been, well, there’s no point because it’s not going to make any difference.”
Monday’s decision will also speak clearly to legal precedent, Smith says. “Hopefully we’re not going to have more cases where an exploited, traumatized minor is given a life sentence. It’s going to give us some reasonable expectations for not only what the sentencing should be, but the fact that these are victims in need of services and not just criminalization.”
As someone who’s met Cyntoia personally, Smith also expresses concern about how the young woman will be perceived when she does get out later this year. “Cyntoia’s never known Cyntoia outside of trauma and exploitation and prison,” she says. “I’m hopeful that she will be given some grace. With all eyes on her and every decision she makes after she gets out, that’s going to make things a lot harder for her. We need to give her a chance.”