Cyntoia Brown, a sex trafficking survivor who was sentenced to life in prison at age 16 for killing her 43-year-old abuser, will have a chance to plead for leniency in federal court this week, according to NBC News. A U.S. federal appeals court in Cincinnati has agreed to hear oral arguments in her case.
Brown, who is now 30, was sentenced to life when she was 16 with no possibility of parole until she serves 51 years. As a teen, she was convicted of murdering Johnny Mitchell Allen, who she said paid her to have sex with him, and tried as an adult. She said she had been forced into prostitution and that she shot Allen in self-defense.
Brown has testified that she was a survivor of abuse from when she was growing up, and her attorneys showed evidence that she suffered from physical, sexual, and verbal abuse and had been beaten, choked, raped, and threatened at gunpoint.
"I have a college degree now. I have a family ... a whole community of people who love me, who believe in me, who support me," Brown told the parole board in the Tennessee Prison for Women on May 23. After many hours of emotional testimony, the parole board was divided on her case.
Activists around the nation — including celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, and LeBron James — have taken interest in her case, using it to advocate for broader criminal-justice reform and awareness of human trafficking. On social media, many are digitally campaigning with the hashtag #freecyntoiabrown. Almost 500,000 people have signed a petition to free Brown.
"The system has failed. It’s heart breaking 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 West posted on Twitter back in November.
The system has failed. It’s heart breaking 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. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
Many are hoping Kardashian West will be the one to help set Brown free, since she recently convinced President Donald Trump to commute the sentence of 63-year-old grandmother Alice Marie Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.
This week, Brown's attorneys are expected to cite recent Supreme Court rulings that state mandatory life sentences for minors without chance of parole are unconstitutional.
"The U.S. stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18," Josh Rovner of advocacy group the Sentencing Project wrote in a recent report.
However, Supreme Court cases have limited the use of juvenile life without parole. After the 2012 ruling Miller v. Alabama, "states and the federal government are required to consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile defendant in determining an individualized sentence," according to the Sentencing Project. After 2016's Montgomery v. Louisiana, the decision applies retroactively.
So far, 20 states and D.C. have banned juvenile life without parole, but Tennessee is not one of the states. According to the Sentencing Project, there are currently 2,300 prisoners serving out terms in the U.S. who were sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, as minors.