Sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was given a life sentence for killing a sex client. Now there’s a push for her release.
Sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was given a life sentence for killing a sex client. Now there’s a push for her release.

Outrage over teen’s ‘cruel’ sentence

It was one of the most controversial murder sentences in recent US history.

Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 for killing a 43-year-old man who had solicited her for sex.

The Tennessee native's bids for clemency have sent her story global, capturing the attention of celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevingne and Rihanna.

Advocates have drawn on the girl's tragic backstory and argued she was wronged by the legal system.

Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the now-30-year-old must serve at least 51 years before she's eligible for parole, but will review her bid for clemency.

Here's why her story has reverberated around the world.

WHO IS CYNTOIA BROWN?

Cyntoia Brown did not have an easy life. She was born in Tennessee to a single 16-year-old mother, Georgina Mitchell, who drank during her pregnancy.

After Cyntoia's birth, Georgina began to abuse crack cocaine, rendering her completely incapable of caring for her daughter.

Cyntoia was put up for adoption, but at the age of 16, she ran away from home and began associating with a 24-year-old man who would soon become her pimp.

 

Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life for killing a man she said she was forced to have sex with.
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life for killing a man she said she was forced to have sex with.

 

Garion McGlothen, known as "Kut-Throat" or simply "Kut", was unstable and abusive. Cyntoia later claimed the man would frequently choke her and pull guns on her.

The pair began to live in motels and did drugs, with Cyntoia forced into sex work to support the two of them.

"He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a sl*t, and nobody (would) want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore," Cyntoia later testified about how she became a prostitute.

HOW CYNTOIA ENDED UP BEHIND BARS

In August 2004, Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen was found naked in his home with a gunshot wound to the back of his head.

Cyntoia, who was then just 16, told police the man had picked her up at a Sonic Drive-in.

According to court documents, Cyntoia told investigators that Mr Allen had showed her his collection of guns.

She said she was a sex worker who had only shot him in self-defence, believing he was reaching for a gun under his bed with the intention of killing her.

She also said she only went with him on the orders of her abusive boyfriend. In her appeal, she said she only took the victim's money because she was afraid of what might happen to her if she went back to her abusive partner empty-handed.

However prosecutors argued that she killed him intentionally to rob him.

 

In 2006, Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2006, Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors in turn argued that she had gone with Mr Allen with the intention of robbing him.

In 2006, Cyntoia was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery, and was later sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Even though she was a juvenile when sentenced, she was tried as an adult.

Cyntoia's defence lawyers also argued that she was born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as a result of her mother Georgina Mitchell drinking during pregnancy.

In 2011, Cyntoia's story gained global traction following the release of the PBS documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story, which explored her history and future.

The documentary aimed to challenge the adult criminal justice system as a venue for punishing minors.

The year after its release, Cyntoia argued that her sentence was unconstitutional, citing a 2012 ruling that declared a life sentence without parole for minors was not constitutional.

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a statement in response saying: "Under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years. However, the 60-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 per cent, or nine years, by earning various sentence credits."

 

Since she’s been in prison, Cyntoia has earned her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University, and is working towards a bachelor’s degree.
Since she’s been in prison, Cyntoia has earned her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University, and is working towards a bachelor’s degree.

 

WILL CYNTOIA EVER BE FREED?

Based on her sentence, Cyntoia still has another 37 years in prison.

Since she's been in prison, she has earned her associate's degree from Lipscomb University, and is studying for her bachelor's degree.

A number of high-profile celebrities have joined the cause to see her freed from prison.

 

Rapper Snoop Dogg compared her story to that of US convicted rapist Brock Turner, who was freed after just six months in jail.

Turner's case prompted an international outcry for being too lenient, after the trial made headlines around the world following the victim's excruciating impact statement.

Likewise, only a month ago, The Miami Herald reported how Jeffrey Epstein was able to secure a plea agreement that allowed him to serve just over a year in jail.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said he is carefully considering the clemency request.

He was speaking at an event about higher education when Justin Lang, a higher-education professional and Black Lives Matter member of Nashville, took over the question portion to raise the issue.

"Since we're here talking about education, I wanted to ask a question about one of your Tennessee students and a graduate of Lipscomb University, Cyntoia Brown," he said, to audience applause.

"As a victim of sex trafficking and assault, this is an unjust sentence in the first place," he went on. "She has not been treated as a victim of trafficking and not given the justice she deserves.

"The Supreme Court's decision that Cyntoia must serve 51 years before she can be considered for parole is a human rights issue. And so I ask you, what really, functionally, is the difference between life without parole - which is no longer constitutional as the United States Supreme Court declared for minors, for any crime - and 'you might get parole after 51 years,' for a victim of sex trafficking?"

Governor Haslam responded: "We're reviewing a lot of cases, and while Cyntoia's case has gotten a lot of publicity, I don't think you want us to treat hers any different than a whole lot of cases that I think people want us to review."

He noted his office is speaking to everyone involved in the woman's case, saying there will be a decision made at least six weeks before he leaves office.

Shouts of anger followed his remarks, preventing the event from continuing.


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