When Cyntoia Brown was a teenager, it seemed like her life was already over. Born to a mother who abused drugs and alcohol, living with an abusive boyfriend nicknamed “Kut Throat” (sometimes spelled “Cut Throat”) who raped her and forced her into prostitution, Brown was 16 when a 43-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, real estate agent, Johnny Allen, paid $150 to have sex with her. He took her to his home, where Brown, frightened by Allen’s behavior, shot him in the head and fled the scene. That was in 2004. Though a minor and alleged sex-trafficking victim, Brown was tried as an adult, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Under Tennessee law, she would not be eligible for parole until 2055. But despite the soul-crushing circumstances, Brown transformed herself even while incarcerated in the maximum-security Tennessee Prison for Women. On January 7, 2019, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam granted her full clemency. And when she is released to parole supervision on August 7, 2019, Brown says she wants to help other young women like her.
She sets a powerful example of strength. Brown elected to pursue an education behind bars, earning her GED, or high school equivalency certificate, then graduating in 2015 with a 4.0 grade point average and an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University’s LIFE (or Lipscomb Initiative for Education) program. She is one course away from completing her bachelor’s degree, which she plans to finish in May 2019. She also collaborates with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to counsel at-risk youth. As Brown has said, “I learned that my life was—and is—not over. I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.” Derri Smith, founder and CEO of nonprofit End Slavery Tennessee, says, “[Brown] is light years today, as a woman, different from the traumatized 16-year-old that she was . . . she is planning a nonprofit so she can help other young people.”
It’s been a long road. Brown’s attorneys petitioned the state’s parole board to commute her sentence, citing her status as a sex-trafficking victim. Public support for Brown swelled after PBS produced the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story in 2011. And in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates sentenced as teenagers to life imprisonment for murder must have an opportunity to argue for their release. When the Tennessee Board of Parole finally issued a recommendation in favor of commuting Brown’s sentence, the governor made the decision to do so as one of his last acts in office. In a statement regarding the clemency order, Governor Haslam says, “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.”
Brown’s story can be considered a point of hope for others as well. As one of her lawyers, J. Houston Gordon, points out, the case is a “national awakening” that might change laws that put children in adult prisons. “Her story,” Gordon said during a news conference, “should be a catalyst for a lot of others, thousands of other juveniles.”
Brown’s clemency specifies that after her release, she’ll undergo counseling, get a job, and complete community-service hours. And as she did in prison, Brown plans to draw on her experience to make a difference. “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” Brown said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”
Thumbnail credit: “Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence commuted by Tennessee governor” produced by CBS This Morning and shown via YouTube.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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