Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) of Tennessee has granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown. She has been in prison since she was 16 years old, for murdering a man who allegedly paid to forcibly have sex with her. She had been serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 51 years.
There are two pictures of what happened the day Johnny Allen, 43, died. The prosecutors who secured Brown’s conviction describe a girl with past drug use who was known to steal, and used her juvenile record to describe a troubled young woman.
Their description of the crime was she planned to rob him. She did take firearms from the property, as well as his wallet and pants. He was found face down, in bed, hands laced together under his head, shot in the back of his skull. Brown didn’t rush to volunteer to the police and prosecutors that she had been trafficked.
There’s another side to the story, though. Brown’s life started with alcohol exposure in the womb, causing alcohol-related impairments. As a baby, she spent time in foster care, becoming a runaway by the time she was a teen. She lacked a stable home life, with no mother and father to protect her.
According to Brown, a man named Garion “Cut Throat” McGlothen pimped her out, forcing her into drug use and abusing her. When she was in bed with Allen, she says he showed her guns and she was afraid he would kill her. She also says that she took the things from Allen’s home to give to McGlothen to avoid being punished by him.
No matter which of these series of events seems most plausible to you, what happened next is clear. She didn’t testify at her trial. This means that the judge and the jury never heard her descriptions of her relationship with McGlothen, including that, “He 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.” She connected with this man at 15 years old, living with him in hotels and using cocaine.
Nor was it presented at her original trial that her mother’s alcohol use had affected Brown’s mental abilities. When Brown was 24, she had a new lawyer, and the new lawyer connected her with Dr. Richard Adler, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He examined Brown and explained what alcohol use like her mother’s does to children, diagnosing her with an alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder related to fetal alcohol syndrome with a functional level of a 13- or 14-year-old.
Despite this, Brown was charged and tried as an adult at 16. As a 24-year-old, she was functioning as a young teenager, yet the courts felt it was appropriate eight years earlier to try and convict her for life as an adult.
Once convicted, she sat in prison for years until her life began attracting media and celebrity attention. Much of the coverage focused on heartstrings memes, with a picture of a very young-looking 16-year-old Cyntoia and the words, “Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named ‘cut throat.’ 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. You’re arrested as a result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. This is the story of Cyntoia Brown. She will be eligible for parole when she is 69 years old. #FreeCyntoiaBrown.”
Post-Me Too, it’s easy to see why outrage built. Why was Brown in prison when she was the victim of repetitive violence, for killing a man who picked up a child allegedly for sex she was too young to consent to?
Tennessee’s age of consent is 18, and Brown was well under that, meaning whether she willingly was engaging in sexual contact with men or not, they were perpetrating crimes. Treating her like a criminal and ignoring the distasteful reality of adult men soliciting children for sex misses that their behavior wasn’t legal or right. It’s also worth noting here that McGlothen was 24 when she was 16.
This doesn’t mean responding with murder is right, and that’s not what this is about, either. It’s about appropriate sentencing. Compare Brown’s sentence to that of Brock Turner, the infamous Stanford University swimmer who was sentenced to only six months for penetrating an unconscious woman. Turner and his father refused to take responsibility for the seriousness of that crime, with his father writing in defense against a sentence of six months, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.”
Contrast that with Brown’s attitude since incarceration. She’s worked on her education, earning a GED, an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University, and will have a bachelor’s degree in 2019. Brown doesn’t deny her guilt, and apologizes for what she did. Nor did she ever act entitled to be released, rather hoping for forgiveness and mercy: “I’m not saying I deserve anything. I’m asking for mercy. I’m telling you that I am a completely different person.”
Nor will Brown be released from prison after weeks or months of time served. She’s been in prison for 15 years. When she is released on August 7, she will have spent nearly as much time in prison as she has spent outside of it.
The time served, as well as the idea of the ability to change and be forgiven, weighed into Haslam’s decision to offer Brown clemency. He said, “This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case. 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.”
Should we be sentencing juveniles with adult sentences, especially those with developmental delays? Tennessee has since changed its juvenile sentencing guidelines, inspired in part by Brown’s story. Crime deserves punishment, but the punishment needs to fit the crime, and consider the circumstances around the act. That’s what justice means.