NASHVILLE, TN — Cyntoia Brown, the 30-year-old Tennessee woman who was convicted as a teenager of killing a man she said had bought her for sex, has been granted clemency, the governor’s office said Monday. Brown’s release has been championed by a slew of A-list celebrities, including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and LeBron James
Brown will be released from prison on Aug. 7, exactly 15 years from the date she was first arrested for killing 43-year-old real estate Johnny Allen in the back of the head at close range. She was tried as an adult and convicted after the jury rejected her argument she acted in self defense, and she was sentenced to life in prison.
After her release, Brown will remain on probation for 10 years, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement.
“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,” Haslam said in his statement.
Brown’s clemency hearing last May brought renewed attention to her case. She had run away from her adoptive home at age 16 in 2004, and began living in a motel with a pimp known as “Kut Throat” who raped and abused her and forced her to become a prostitute, her lawyer, Charles Bone said in 2017.
Allen picked Brown up at a Sonic drive-in in Nashville and took her to his home, where Brown shot him. She told investigators she saw him reaching under his bed and thought he was getting a gun and then shot him with a gun from her own purse, taking both money and two guns before she fled, according to court documents.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Brown bought the gun with the intent of robbing and killing Allen.
Brown’s attorneys also argued at trial that she was not only a sex trafficking victim who feared for her life, but also lacked the mental capacity to be held culpable in Allen’s killing. She was Brown was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and grew up in an abusive home, according to a 2011 documentary about her case, reports by the Tennessean newspaper and court documents detailing Brown’s own testimony and that of a juvenile psychiatrist.
She had been in prison for several years before celebrities picked up her cause.
In a November 2017 Instagram post, Rihanna brought awareness to the plight of Brown and others like her who fall into the dark underworld of human trafficking.
“Imagine at the age of 16 being sex trafficked by a pimp named ‘cut throat,'” the entertainer wrote. “After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43 year old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex.
“You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him,” Rihanna wrote, only to be tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In a caption on the post, she wrote that “something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life.”
Kardashian West added in her post: “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. …”
“Thank you Governor Haslam,” Kardashian West tweeted soon after news of the clemency decision broke, which was followed by similar high-profile responses from former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, actresses Alyssa Milano and Viola Davis.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said Brown’s case as “a national rallying point for criminal justice reform” shows the “power in unity.”
In a statement released by her legal team Monday, Brown expressed her thanks those who have supported her release.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received. We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without him,” Brown said. “Let today be a testament to his saving grace.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Yet, the state of Tennessee argued successfully in lower courts that it was not in violation of federal law because Brown did have a possibility for parole: She was sentenced to serve at least 51 years of her life sentence.
“We need to see this as a national awakening to change the draconian laws that allow juveniles, children, to be placed in adult prisons when they’re just children. They’re not little adults,” said Houston Gordon, one of Brown’s lead attorneys.
While in prison, Brown completed her GED and took college classes, and is one course away from earning a bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb College.
Nashville Mayor David Briley praised Haslam’s decision, calling it a “great day for social justice and our city.”
Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the clemency announcement shows that Tennessee “can show love, compassion and mercy” for people who have experienced trauma.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
Image: This May 23, 2018, file photo shows Cyntoia Brown, entering her clemency hearing at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, granted executive clemency to Brown, who is serving a life sentence for murder who says she was a victim of sex trafficking. The outgoing Republican governor, whose term ends in just two weeks, chose to show mercy to the now 30-year-old Brown by releasing her Aug. 7. (Lacy Atkins /The Tennessean via AP, Pool, File)