Sentenced at 16, Brown’s case gained sizable social media traction before being reopened.
After 15 years in prison, dozens of celebrities’ and activists’ attention and a documentary produced about her, Cyntoia Brown has been granted clemency by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and had her sentence commuted.
Commutation, unlike a pardon, does not mean a crime is forgiven. Instead, the prison sentence is reduced, usually for good behavior. In most states, a governor is the only person who can commute a non-federal sentence.
Brown’s case started back in 2004. When she was 16 years old, she ran away from her adopted family and moved in with 24-year-old Garion McGlothen, known as “Cut-Throat,” who would later sexually, physically and psychologically abuse her as well as pimp her out to other men. One of these men was 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen.
Brown met up with Allen in 2004 at a Sonic and agreed to meet back at his place for sex in exchange for $150. That night, Brown pulled a gun out of her purse and shot Allen while he was naked and face down in his bed.
The reasoning for Allen’s death is contested. Prosecutors argued that Brown murdered Allen to steal his money, guns and truck. Brown said she acted out of self defense because she felt unsafe around him. However, she was not allowed to testify in her initial hearing.
For aggravated assault and first degree murder, she was sentenced to at least 51 years in prison before being eligible for release.
In 2012, Brown appealed with new evidence, such as the fact that she suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and other developmental issues. A clinical and forensic psychologist testified at the trial that Brown functioned at the age of a 13- or 14-year-old because of her mother’s alcohol and drug abuse during her pregnancy and from previous abuse.
Brown told the judge, “[Cut-Throat] would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore.”
Laws have also substantially changed since her initial hearing. For example, Tennessee laws changed in 2011 so that anyone under 18 cannot be charged with prostitution. Instead, she would count as a victim of child sex trafficking. Another change was that a 2012 Supreme Court case considered life in prison for minors cruel and unusual punishment. Tennessee and other states are considering making it a requirement to review life sentence cases for minors after 15 or 20 years.
However, in Brown’s 2012 appeal the court decided that because she was eligible for release after 51 years instead of the full 60 year sentence, it would not meet the Supreme Court’s standard for cruel and unusual punishment.
March 2011 brought “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” a documentary produced and directed by Daniel Birman, who had been following her case from the beginning. Six years later, Rihanna brought the issue back to light in an Instagram post about Brown. This sparked outrage among celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevingne, Drake, Amy Schumer and Lebron James, who all campaigned for Governor Haslam to grant clemency to Brown. The hashtag “#FreeCyntoiaBrown” circulated around social media.
With Haslam leaving office on January 19, Brown was under the wire if she was going to have a chance. After many months of media attention, Haslam decided on January 7 to grant full commutation.
Haslam reasoned that he granted her clemency for the extraordinary steps she has taken to turn her life around, such as finishing at Lipscomb University in December of 2015 with an associate degree and working as an unpaid consultant with the juvenile justice system.
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” Haslam said.
Brown will be released on August 7 after serving 15 years. When she gets out, she will have another 10 years on parole.
In a statement following the granting of her clemency, Brown said, “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”
A follow-up documentary is set to release later this year, tentatively titled “Me Facing Life 2: Cyntoia’s Fight for Freedom.”