Over the last 24 hours, one woman’s name has dominated US headlines and has garnered international attention for her story. Cyntoia Brown has become an unwitting face of a flawed and often cruel justice system, which has seen her spend almost half of her life in prison for what many people say was an unjust conviction.
Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was arrested for the murder of Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old man who had picked her up off the street for sex in August 2004. In 2006, Brown was tried as an adult for the crime and found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison.
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During her trial, Brown testified her side of the story. According to Brown, she had been raped and on drugs for weeks prior to being taken to Allen’s house. She said Allen showed her his gun collection, and after roughly grabbing and groping her, Brown saw him reach to the other side of the bed, for what she believed was a weapon.
Fearing his actions, Brown shot Allen in what she said was self-defence. The prosecution said the incident was motivated by money, saying Brown murdered Allen while he was asleep, and that she stole his money and truck to flee the scene. Brown said she took the money for fear of returning empty-handed to her pimp.
The jury sided with the prosecution, and Brown’s sentence meant she would not be eligible for parole for 51 years.
The case sparked outrage across social media, and launched a campaign for Brown’s release which has lasted over 14 years. The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown has been frequently used by US celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian.
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
In 2011, a documentary was filmed about Brown’s story. Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story looked at Brown’s life prior to the incident, the failings of the trial and justice system, and how she had fared in prison in the five years since her trial.
The documentary revealed Brown had suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can cause brain damage. Her mother had admitted to drinking heavily during her pregnancy, according to a court transcript from an appeal for her case. Brown had lived with an adoptive family as a teenager, but due to previous traumas, had veered off course and ended up being sex-trafficked.
Her time in prison was not spent idly; Brown worked on her education and received her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University in 2015. She has also been reportedly working toward her Bachelor’s degree while in prison. Reports also say she’s been collaborating with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to help counsel young people at risk.
This year, after almost 15 years in prison, Brown’s story gained new hope. On Monday, the Tennessee governor’s office announced that Brown was to be granted clemency on August 7 this year. Governor Bill Haslam’s office 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. Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”
The news was greeted with mass celebrations on social media, with many of the celebrities who had supported Brown happy to see her release.
Brown will be released from prison to spend the next 10 years of her life under the parole system.