Cyntoia Brown Released from Prison After Serving 15 Years of Sentence – Rolling Stone
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Cyntoia Brown Released From Prison After Serving 15 Years of Life Sentence

Brown was only 16 years old when she was convicted of first-degree murder

Cyntoia Brown, a woman serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was a 16-year-old prostitute, smiles at family members during her clemency hearing Wednesday, May 23, 2018, at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tenn. It is her first bid for freedom before a parole board since the 2004 crime. (Lacy Atkins /The Tennessean via AP, Pool)Cyntoia Brown Clemency Hearing, Nashville, USA - 23 May 2018

Cyntoia Brown, a woman sentenced to life for killing a man when she was a 16-year-old sex worker, is set to be released from prison today.

Lacy Atkins/Shutterstock

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.

 

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.

Under the conditions of her release, Brown will be on parole for 10 years. She says she plans to use her time helping other girls and women suffering under sexual exploitation. “I thank Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me and with the Lord’s help I will make them as well as the rest of my supporters proud,” she wrote in a statement to the press on Wednesday.
But Jill McCracken PhD, codirector of SWOP Behind Bars, an outreach organization for incarcerated sex workers, says her battle is not over. “We’re thrilled she’s been released, [but] our primary concern is…. what’s next in terms of housing and employment,” she tells Rolling Stone. “The conditions of her parole are she continue with her university studies, that she get a job. Where are the resources she needs to get these things done?” To that end, Brown’s supporters have set up a GoFundMe to help her land on her feet following her release, which has raised more than $21,000 at press time. 
McCracken hopes that the press attention focused on Brown’s case will bring focus to similar cases of sex trafficking survivors who are also incarcerated. “There’s many, many more cases [like Brown’s] that we’re going to call attention to,” she says. 

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