Woman sentenced to life as teen in killing wins clemency
By KIMBERLEE KRUESI
Tuesday, January 8
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fifteen years after Cyntoia Brown was charged with murder, the woman who says she was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim when she killed a man in 2004 is no longer under a life sentence.
Following years of national attention from criminal justice advocates, celebrities and politicians calling for mercy — and just days before he is to leave office — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday granted clemency to the now 30-year-old Brown.
“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,” Haslam said in his statement.
Brown will remain on parole supervision for 10 years on the condition she does not violate any state or federal laws, holds a job, and participates in regular counseling sessions.
While law enforcement officials had opposed clemency, arguing Brown was not justified in killing 43-year-old Johnny Allen, celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and singer Rihanna spoke out for Brown. The governor’s office received thousands of phone calls and emails from supporters.
“Thank you Governor Haslam,” Kardashian West tweeted soon after news of the clemency decision broke. Similar high-profile responses poured in from former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and actresses Alyssa Milano and Viola Davis.
Brown was convicted in 2006 of murdering Allen, a Nashville real estate agent. Police said she shot Allen in the back of the head at close range with a gun she brought to rob him after he picked her up at a drive-in restaurant in Nashville to have sex with her.
Brown’s lawyers contended she was a victim of sex trafficking who not only feared for her life but also lacked the mental capacity to be culpable in the slaying because she was impaired by her mother’s alcohol use while she was in the womb.
According to court documents, Brown ran away from her adoptive family in Nashville in 2004 and began living in a hotel with a man known as “Cut Throat,” who forced her to become a prostitute. Court documents say he verbally, physically and sexually assaulted her.
One night, Allen picked up Brown at a Sonic Drive-In and she agreed to engage in sexual activity for $150. Once at his place, Brown eventually got into Allen’s bed. Brown told authorities she thought he was reaching for a gun, so she shot him with a handgun from her purse.
She took two of his guns and his money from his wallet before fleeing the scene.
Brown expressed thanks in a statement released Monday by her legal team.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received. We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without him,” Brown said. “Let today be a testament to his saving grace.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles . Yet, the state of Tennessee argued successfully in lower courts that Brown’s sentence was not in violation of federal law because Brown did have a possibility for parole: She was sentenced to serve at least 51 years of her life sentence.
“We need to see this as a national awakening to change the draconian laws that allow juveniles, children, to be placed in adult prisons when they’re just children. They’re not little adults,” said Houston Gordon, one of Brown’s lead attorneys.
While in prison, Brown completed her GED and took college classes. She is currently one course away from finishing a bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb University.
Nashville Mayor David Briley praised Haslam’s decision, calling it a “great day for social justice and our city.” Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the clemency announcement shows that Tennessee “can show love, compassion and mercy” for people who have experienced trauma.
Haslam’s decision comes as he’s considering his next political move in Tennessee now that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he won’t seek re-election in 2020. It’s not yet clear how the clemency decision may affect Haslam’s already solid popularity throughout the state.
In contrast to Democrats, Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers remained markedly quiet on Haslam’s decision.
Gov.-elect Bill Lee offered a brief statement, saying he “respected” Haslam’s choice in the complex case and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he “appreciated” the process the governor went through to arrive at his decision.
Ed Yarbrough, another attorney for Brown, joked at a Monday news conference that he was brought on as the “token Republican” in Brown’s case.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Gov. Haslam for having the wisdom and the compassion to do what he did today,” he said. “It will not be popular with everyone in Tennessee, but he did the right thing and we praise him for that.”
To date, Haslam has granted five commutations, 15 pardons, and one exoneration. The Republican says he is continuing to review and consider additional clemency requests.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.
Clemency for Cyntoia Brown was long overdue
Updated January 7, 2019
On Jan. 7, 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted executive clemency to Brown, serving a life sentence for a murder that happened after she was forced into sex work.
Author: Jerry Flores, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
Disclosure statement: Jerry Flores does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Toronto provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA. University of Toronto provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA-FR.
Cyntoia Brown will be released from prison in August — a surprising and welcome development in the case of a teenager who was convicted of killing a man when she was just 16 and forced into sex work.
In announcing his decision to grant clemency in the high-profile case, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said a recent ruling by the state’s Supreme Court that Brown must serve 51 years in prison before being eligible for parole was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
News stories and social media have widely reported and shared Brown’s plight. Many compared her harsh sentence to lesser ones for white juveniles since the state of Tennessee first tried her case more than 10 years ago.
In 2004, Johnny Allen, 43, solicited sex in exchange for money from Brown, who was 16 at the time. Brown argued that she feared for her life and thought Allen was going to shoot her, so she shot and killed him in self-defence, according to court records. Despite these details, the state of Tennessee still tried her as an adult and convicted her of first-degree murder.
There was so much wrong about this story, which underlies the treatment of young, poor girls and women living in unstable situations. Many of these youth are regularly exposed to drugs, violence and multiple forms of trauma.
A 2011 PBS documentary about Brown’s life and trial revealed the challenges Brown faced in her young life. The documentary showed Brown, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, hair pulled into ponytails, waiting to hear from a judge to see if she would be tried as a juvenile or adult.
Her mother was raped at age 16 by an older man and she was given up for adoption. Her adoptive father routinely inflicted physical abuse on her. At 15, she ran away and met a 23-year-old drug dealer, “Kut Throat,” who raped her and forced her into sex work.
After a disagreement with him, she left and went to a local burger place. That is where she met Allen, who asked if she was looking for “action” — meaning was she selling sex? After bartering, they agreed on $150 for the “exchange.” They went to his home, ate, had sex and remained in his bed. Allen boasted about being a former soldier and said he had multiple guns in his home. He grabbed Brown and rolled over. She feared for her life, grabbed a gun and shot him.
Brown’s sentence seemed even harsher in light of the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to give juveniles mandatory life sentences without parole. According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Brown’s sentence fell within the parameters of the constitution because she would have been eligible for parole once she turns 67.
But thanks to the governor’s decision on clemency, she will be released from prison to supervised parole on Aug. 7 after serving 15 years.
A cycle of incarceration
Brown’s story mirrors other marginalized young women of colour living in the United States. I have conducted fieldwork with 50 incarcerated Latinas, age 12-19, in Southern California and wrote a book about their lives: Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration.
The girls I spoke with often experienced abuse in their homes. They ran away to escape the abuse. They spoke about being left no choice but to engage in high-risk behaviour, including shoplifting, hitchhiking or soliciting. They were vulnerable prey for older predators who began “relationships” with them, exchanging sex for access to clothes, food and shelter. Many like the ones I spoke with end up behind bars.
Tragically, the experience of marginalized girls in the U.S. and Canada are eerily similar. The tragic stories of Cyntoia Brown and Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl whose body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, have parallel issues despite the roughly 2,000 kilometres between Nashville and Winnipeg where they lived.
A recent study by the Vera Institute found that approximately 66 per cent of incarcerated women in the United States are women of colour — and 86 per cent of them have experienced sexual violence, often at the hands of an intimate partner or caretaker. Additionally, 79 per cent of these women care for children. Almost all incarcerated women included in the Vera Institute study lived in poverty.
These findings are confirmed by other classic and contemporary research done with incarcerated women. What is staggering is that 82 per cent of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses like shoplifting or using drugs.
In short, inequality, a lack of essential services and supports geared toward women help contribute to tragedy for so many poor, young women.
Ironically, when girls fight back against abuse they are often punished by authorities or others in power. If they run away and are caught by the police they are arrested, incarcerated or often returned to the very home where they experienced abuse. They fight back against the abuse of friends, family or boyfriends they often face more mistreatment or end up behind bars.
Once incarcerated, they face a slew of interpersonal and institutional forms of abuse. For example, research shows that once young women are incarcerated they face multiple forms of violence behind bars. This includes having to fight other incarcerated individuals, experiencing violence at the hands of guards and being obligated to endure degrading strip searches. Additionally, there has been historical patterns of corrections officers sexually abusing incarcerated women.
This puts young women in a difficult position and sheds light on the immense gap in services needed. Research indicates that access to dependable and free transportation to shelters, and other supports, including outreach workers to make connections with them, are integral to young women leading healthy and productive lives.
Researchers, politicians and leaders need to address the root issues that hurt poor, young, women in jail. These issues include rising poverty, abuse in the home, a lack of social services, inadequate education and the fact that many youth in the wealthiest countries like the U.S. and Canada still do not have access to three meals a day, a safe home, clean water and reliable transportation.
As others have accurately pointed out on social media, white men and women who commit crimes in the U.S. are given lighter sentences compared to people of colour. Jeffrey Epstein, a 54-year-old accused of trafficking underage girls, received a 13-month prison term. Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman and was sentenced to six months in jail. Teen Ethan Couch ran over and killed four people and injured several others while driving drunk and received no jail time.
Tennessee law has changed because of Brown’s case. That means minors can no longer be sentenced to life in prison. But that law did not apply to Brown.
Brown’s case attracted significant public support. The #FreeCyntoiaBrown campaign circulated widely on social media and there were plans to highlight Brown’s case along with other survivors during the annual Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 19. Coincidentally, that’s also the last day of Haslam’s term as governor.
Granting clemency for Cyntoia Brown was the right thing to do. But there are still other women incarcerated under similar conditions. It’s time we stop punishing young women for defending themselves and address the real issues that lead young women into precarious situations.
(Lacy Atkins /The Tennessean via AP, Pool, File)