A Nashville woman serving life in prison for a murder committed when she was 16 years old has also become a cause for high-profile celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna. Now, Tennessee’s outgoing governor is deciding whether to pardon Cyntoia Brown. Her case is compelling on many levels, its own unique and disturbing set of facts as well as what it says about how Tennessee and the country are changing.
In 2004, Brown was homeless when she killed a 43-year-old man who had paid to have sex with her. She was sentenced to life without parole, which in her case, means 51 years in prison before being eligible for release. It’s a sentence that was reaffirmed by the Tennessee Supreme Court this month.
But before calls to pardon Brown became a national talking point, it was being pushed by local lawmakers for years, including State Senator-elect Brenda Gilmore.
“She’s already spent almost 15 years in prison. So we feel like she has served her time,” Gilmore said. “She’s done what we want people to do when they are in prison — to come out a changed person.”
While behind bars, Brown, who’s African-American and now 30, has obtained one college degree and is working on another. She also mentors troubled youth in prison.
Nevertheless, the lead detective in her original case this month urged Governor Bill Haslam not to grant clemency for what he still calls an unjustified murder. Brown’s supporters say she acted in self-defense.
A recent protest led by Black Lives Matter shut down an education forum the governor was holding. It’s not just that activists, celebrities and lawmakers want leniency because Brown had a troubled childhood. Sex trafficking expert Derri Smith says the fact that Brown was forced into prostitution would mean she’d be treated very differently by the courts today.
“It’s interesting to look back at the original transcripts from Cyntoia’s court case and see how peppered it was with that exact term — ‘teen prostitute.’ That wouldn’t happen today,” Smith says.
Smith heads End Slavery Tennessee, which helps human trafficking victims. That’s now the legal status of any minor picked up for prostitution in Tennessee, which means those kids are no longer treated as criminals. Smith says that’s due to a much deeper understanding of the psychological and developmental effects of trauma on young people.
Of course, Cyntoia Brown still committed murder, and attorneys cannot say what the outcome of her case would be if she were tried today.
“Today, I would think that you would expect the case to have a different disposition. You would hope that it would have a different disposition, but what it would exactly look like would depend on a number of variables,” says Mark Stephens, who heads the Knoxville Public Defender’s Office.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled most juvenile life sentences without parole are unconstitutional. That’s what Brown’s attorneys are using to argue in a federal appeal for a reduced sentence and a clemency request to Governor Haslam.
“The Cyntoia case has gotten a lot of publicity, understandably,” he said last week. “But again, we want to make certain we’re treating everybody fairly in this. And so we’re doing our homework on a multitude of cases.”
Haslam says he’ll make his decision on her case and several others before he leaves office next month.