This story was originally published on December 11, 2018.
On December 6, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Cyntoia Brown, a woman convicted of first degree murder as a teen, would have to serve 51 years in prison before being eligible for parole. The decision disregards many factors including that Cyntoia Brown was solicited for sex by a 43-year-old man when she was only 16, the fact that both Tennessee and U.S. law has changed significantly when it comes to prosecuting minors since Brown’s first trial in 2006, and the outrage expressed by hundreds of thousands in a number of petitions protesting the egregious sentencing of an at-risk-child at the mercy of a series of a predatory men.
Brown’s case has attracted the attention of celebrities including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, and LeBron James. Here's what you need to know.
The Case Against Cyntoia Brown
On August 7, 2004 Nashville Police responded to a 911 call and found the body of 43-year-old Johnny Allen. Allen was nude, lying face down in his bed. He’d been shot in the back of the head. In the early morning hours of August 8, police found Allen’s white pick up truck in a parking lot and arrested 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown in connection with the shooting. At the time, she was staying in a nearby hotel with a man she referred to as “Cut Throat.” Brown had taken Allen’s wallet and some of his guns.
She waived her Miranda Rights and told investigators that Allen had solicited her for sex on August 6 and driven her to his home where he showed her guns and became violent. She feared for her life and shot him with a .40-caliber handgun she had in her purse, killing him in self defense.
Prosecutors argued that Brown’s real motive was robbery and despite her age she was charged as an adult with first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.
Cyntoia Brown’s Childhood
At her original trial, Brown wasn’t allowed to testify on her own behalf and her attorneys didn’t offer into evidence her traumatic childhood history and severe neurodevelopmental disorder.
Brown’s mother drank alcohol — as much as "a fifth a day, if I could get it" she later admitted —throughout her pregnancy. As a result Brown is on the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder which can result in “poor impulse control and a disconnect between thought and action.” At eight-months-old, Brown entered the foster care system and became a runaway in her early teens. She experienced numerous rapes and assaults during this time.
In 2004 she began living in a series of hotels with the 24-year-old man she called “Cut Throat.” Her relationship with Cut Throat was sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive. He pulled a gun on her multiple times and once choked her so hard she passed out. Eventually he forced her into prostitution.
Brown later testified that, "He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody'd want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore.”
On the night of August 6, he ordered her to go out and “get money.” Brown met Allen later that evening in the parking lot of a Sonic franchise. He agreed to pay $150 for sex and drove them both back to his home where she later shot him.
Cyntoia Brown’s Case Gains Publicity
Filmmaker Dan Birman had been following Brown’s case since her arrest, after being tipped of to the story by a forensic psychiatrist who’d been asked to interview her. In 2011, his film, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” debuted on PBS. The documentary took on many of the complicated angles of the case including juvenile justice reform, Brown’s flawed first trial and the ways in which it was prejudiced by the fact that she was a woman of color engaging in sex work, and the lack of a social safety net available to young at-risk women like Brown — who are at a high risk for sex trafficking.
Birman’s film also helped change the law in Tennessee: Now children under the age of 18 cannot be tried for prostitution. If she were to arrested today, Brown would be treated as a child human trafficking victim.
Charles Bone, a prominent national attorney, saw the film and took on Brown’s case, representing her for a 2012 appeal. Bone argued that although Brown has a high IQ, she functions at the cognitive level of a 13-year-old as a result of her fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, traumatic and violent past, and her abusive relationship with her trafficker Cut Throat.
In 2017, Brown’s case came back into the spotlight when Rihanna shared Brown’s story on Instagram in a post that read: "Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named 'cut-throat.' After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43 year old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him.”
Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevingne and other celebrities shared the post inspiring the viral hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. In May 2017, Brown had a clemency hearing, but the board was split on their decision with two voting for clemency, two against it, and two to make her eligible for parole after 25 years.
Brown’s lawyers have continued to argue her case saying her sentence is unconstitutional based on a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found that life imprisonment sentences for minors violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Where Is Cyntoia Brown Now?
On Thursday, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Brown’s sentence was not unconstitutional based on a loophole that defines a “life sentence” as 60 years. In a statement the court wrote "under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years. However, the sixty-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 percent, or 9 years, by earning various sentence credits." In other words, the court ruled that because Brown’s sentence is 51 years and not 60, it is not technically a “life sentence” and therefore doesn’t violate the US Supreme Court ruling that forbids convicting minors to prison terms equivalent to death in prison.
Even more galling: Brown was able to receive the credits that reduced her 60-year-sentence as a result of her own model behavior. She received her associates degree in prison and mentors other female inmates.
Brown’s case is currently pending judgment by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.