Cyntoia Brown was only 16 when she was sentenced to life in prison, and the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled this past week that she will have to serve 51 years before she could be eligible for release.
Brown was convicted of murder and robbery for killing 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen in 2004 after he solicited her for sex and brought her to his home. Brown claimed her actions were in self-defense because she was afraid Allen was going to kill her.
Brown said she had run away from her adoptive family weeks before and was living with her 24-year-old abusive boyfriend known as “Kut Throat.” Brown’s lawyers alleged that Kut Throat raped Brown and forced her into prostitution, making her a sex trafficking victim, as she was not an adult at the time. Brown claimed that on the day of the murder, Kut Throat had hit her and insisted she go out and bring home money.
According to Brown’s appeal, Allen picked Brown up at a Sonic drive-in and brought her to his home. The two got into bed after Allen showed Brown some of his guns, but Brown resisted him. When Allen reached under his bed, Brown thought he was going for a gun, so she pulled her own gun out of her purse and shot him. She then took money from his wallet, drove his truck to a Walmart, and left it there. She was later arrested. The lawyers also claimed that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome “played a part in [her] actions on the night in question.” Prosecutors argued, however, that Brown had gone to Allen’s home with the intention of robbing him.
Brown was the subject of an Independent Lens documentary that aired on PBS in 2010. Stars such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West have been lobbying in protest of the life sentence, and her story has been shared across social media with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.
Tennessee law has since changed—prompted by Brown’s case—and minors can no longer be sentenced to life in prison, but that law, sadly, does not apply to Brown herself. She will have to wait until she is 67 before she can go before a parole board, unless outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam decides to grant Brown clemency by shortening her sentence.
Brown’s case now will go before the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has requested the opinion from the Tennessee Supreme Court be shared with them.