Cyntoia Brown Long has a message for Chrystul Kizer, a young woman whose shoes she was in back in 2004. Both were charged with first-degree murder for killing and robbing a man — and both claim that they were sexually trafficked as teens and killed out of self-defense.
“The best thing that she could do right now is just make sure she’s OK,” Brown tells Rolling Stone. “Because I know that this has to be bringing up a lot for her. I know when I was going through that situation, it brought up a lot for me. … Focus on that, focus on getting through, focus on healing. … Trust that she’s going to come out of this and she can come out of this stronger if she chooses to.”
Although Long can relate to Kizer’s plight, the younger woman’s circumstances have recently become more hopeful than those Long faced. In 2006, Long was convicted of aggravated robbery and first-degree murder for killing 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen when she was 16; he solicited her for sex and the teen shot him, she said, because she thought he was reaching for a gun. Although Long was eventually granted clemency in 2019, she spent 15 years in prison — and was initially sentenced to life behind bars. Kizer, as of just this month, might be able to escape that fate.
On September 21st, news broke that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will review an appellate court decision that would allow Kizer to use an affirmative defense when fighting a charge in the killing of Randall Volar III, a 34-year-old who was allegedly having sex with underage girls, including Kizer, when she was 17. Kizer is accused of shooting Volar in the head in 2018 and lighting his house on fire. An affirmative defense, basically, would allow Kizer’s attorneys to argue that Volar was abusing young girls, thus mitigating the legal consequences for Kizer’s alleged actions.
“I think it’s really important that she be given the opportunity to present the evidence of her being trafficked under this law,” Long says. “When you’re a girl that’s gone through things like I have, things like Chrystul has, the average person can’t look at those situations and base their decision on what they feel would be reasonable because you can’t really relate. You can’t really understand. So when you have laws like the affirmative defense, it says that even if you don’t understand, if you see that these certain circumstances are present during this case, then that serves as a justification for what has happened.”
Long was not able to talk about her experiences during her trial, although she did expound on them during her appeals process, describing how she was a teen runaway in an abusive relationship with a drug dealer named Cut Throat who forced her into sex work. Over the course of her incarceration, she earned high-profile supporters like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, meanwhile getting her Bachelor’s degree and mentoring at-risk teens, which she still does today now that she’s at home in Tennessee.
“I’m working with a lot of these girls who are still caught up in a system and trying to teach them how to be advocates for themselves, trying to teach them how to use their voice, trying to create opportunities,” Long says. “I feel like I really don’t have a choice because it’s so embedded in my heart. I don’t want other young girls to go through what I’ve gone through but I do want them to be able to come out of it the way that I did. I want the people in place who threw these kids away — the same people who, looking at my case files, said there was nothing that could be done for me — I want them to understand. There are things that can be done and no child is just disposable.”
As for Kizer’s case, Long is hopeful but wholeheartedly believes there is more work to be done when it comes to dealing with young people who have committed crimes while being trafficked or abused. “I think that that’s a good start,” she says of the affirmative defense option. “I think another thing it’s really important to note is that this is not saying that this is just a get out of jail free card. It’s just saying that I have the right to present [my side of the story]. … I find it disturbing that the prosecution doesn’t want her to be able to tell her story. They don’t want her voice to be heard. And that’s something that we really struggle with in the justice system. Instead of seeking to punish girls who react out of trauma, who react to protect themselves in the only way that they know how, instead of seeking to throw them in prison, we try to figure out what’s going on with them and help them to really uncover all of that trauma and heal from that and learn how they can live a normal life.”