Cyntoia Brown was 16 and a victim of sex trafficking when she was arrested for killing the man who allegedly solicited her for sex, Johnny Allen. In her defense, she says she believed he was reaching for his gun to kill her. However, Tennessee’s Supreme Court clarified an earlier ruling that she must remain in prison for 51 years before she is eligible for release.
The state Supreme Court’s response comes after a lawsuit was filed claiming Brown’s life sentence is unconstitutional based on a previous Supreme Court ruling that said sentencing a minor to a mandatory life sentence was against the Constitution. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have banned life without parole for minors. Tennessee is not one of those states; there, people convicted of first-degree murder can only be released from prison after serving at least 51 years of their 60-year sentence. A U.S. District Court in Tennessee noted that her sentence was different because she received a “life sentence, not a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
The Women’s March, Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, and LeBron James have all publicly supported Brown’s release, funded legal support, and used her case to shed light on a larger need for prison reform and the systematic racism ingrained in our justice system. “The system has failed. It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this,” Kardashian tweeted.
In 2004, Brown was forced into prostitution by a pimp known as “Cut Throat” who she believed was her boyfriend. According to court documents, Allen allegedly brought Brown to his home and paid her to have sex with him. She was under the state’s age of consent at the time. In her testimony, Brown said that Allen showed her multiple guns in his home. When she believed that he was reaching under his bed to grab a gun and shoot her, she grabbed a gun out of her purse and shot him. She was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and especially aggravated robbery. Brown has already served 14 years in prison.
In response to the court’s decision, the Women’s March tweeted in support of Brown and other sex trafficking victims, adding that the next Women’s March on January 19, 2019 is for them as well. The organization asked their supporters to contact Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, to demand Brown’s release. “Gov. Haslam has the power to #FreeCyntoia. Every day she remains in prison, he is actively choosing not to,” they tweeted.