On early Wednesday morning, Cyntoia Brown, who was convicted at age 16 of killing a 43-year-old Nashville man, finally walked out of prison after years of activists aggressively campaigning for her release. Brown had served 15 years of her life sentence before she was granted clemency.
In 2006, Brown was convicted of killing a 43-year-old real estate agent, Johnny Allen, who solicited her for sex at a Nashville Sonic restaurant. During her trial, Brown testified that she saw him reaching under the bed and assumed that he planned to kill her, so she reached for a gun she kept in her purse and shot him in self-defense. Brown also testified that at the time of Allen’s death, she was being trafficked against her will by a pimp named Kutthroat, who beat and sexually abused her. Prosecutors argued that the murder was premeditated, and that she shot him because she planned to rob him and take his wallet.
Although she was only 16 at the time of the murder, Brown was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. Although Tennessee does not grant life sentences to underage offenders, the court made an exception by stipulating that she would be up for parole after serving 51 years of her sentence.
The decision to sentence Brown to life imprisonment drew ire from many activists in the Nashville community, particularly those in the sex workers’ rights community, who have worked tirelessly for years for her release. A 2011 documentary film by Daniel Birman about Brown’s arrest and incarceration also drew attention to her story.
But it wasn’t until her case drew the attention of celebrities like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, and Snoop Dogg that her case drew national attention, with many using the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown to draw attention to her case. Many shared a photo of Brown at her sentencing to underscore how young she was at the time of her conviction. In 2017, a MoveOn.org petition clamoring for the president to pardon Brown also widely circulated, garnering more than 675,000 signatures.
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
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did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?? cause….. Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child's sentence I hope to God you don't have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already! #FREECYNTOIABROWN #HowManyMore
In January 2019, outgoing Tennesee governor Bill Haslam finally granted her clemency. Haslam said that the decision to grant her clemency was motivated in large part by the fact that Brown’s original sentence was too harsh given her young age: “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,” he said in a statement at the time.