The following article was written before Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam stepped down as Governor of Tennessee in January. On Monday, January 7, Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, in a case that gained overwhelming support in the country, with a campaign demanding her freedom. Although she will not be released from prison until August of this year, it is nonetheless a great victory for Brown. This article explains the background of her case.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on December 6 ruled that Cyntoia Brown must serve a minimum of 51 years before even being considered for parole.
But in a case that has gained widespread national attention, a growing league of supporters refuses to accept this injustice and are committed to win her immediate freedom.
Cyntoia Brown has already served 14 years in a case that highlights the crisis of girls and women forced into sex trafficking and treated as criminals, instead of their reality as victims.
The harshness of Tennessee’s sentencing laws and the extremely narrow consideration by U.S. federal court in her appeal, mandates that an urgent popular struggle is the key to winning her freedom.
A child victim of sex trafficking
Brown was a teenager, only 16 years old in 2004 when she was forced by a pimp known as Kut Throat into sex trafficking. He ordered her out into the streets one day in August, and a 43-year-old man named Johnny Allen picked up Brown and drove her to his home. He showed her several guns in his house in behavior that she felt was menacing. As the evening progressed, Allen reached under his bed. Brown thought he was about to grab a gun and she shot him with a pistol she carried in her purse for safety.
Although Brown was a juvenile and a victim of sex trafficking and violence, prosecutors tried her as an adult. She had suffered a childhood filled with severe neglect and abuse.
At trial’s end she was convicted of first-degree murder, premeditated murder and aggravated robbery. Brown had taken money from Allen’s possession because of her fear that Kut Throat would harm her if she did not return with money.
She is now 30 and has been in prison almost half her life. Brown has overcome many obstacles in her life, and has impressed many, including her appeals attorney Charles W. Bone, who was moved to represent her after he saw a PBS documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia Brown’s Story,” in 2011. That film generated national awareness and support.
She has received her GED and associate’s degree and is now aiming for a master’s degree. She has mentored other young women in the prison. Even the former Tennessee assistant attorney general, Preston Shipp, who successfully argued against her appeal, is speaking out now on her behalf. Ironically, he changed his opinion of her when coincidentally she became one of his students in his prison classes.
An impressive list of 13 national organizations that work on justice for incarcerated youth filed a brief to support her appeals, including Juvenile Law Center, Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, The Sentencing Project, Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and others. The Tennessee Black Caucus held a press conference. Well-known artists and personalities, from Rihanna to LeBron James to Kim Kardashian are using their social media to advocate for her.
Governor is confronted by militant BLM youth
This week, her struggle was brought publicly to Tennessee governor Bill Haslam when young activists strongly urged him to use his executive power to release her.
On December 10, several Black Lives Matter Nashville youth spoke out during a public library event, where the governor was speaking on the importance of education. BLM organizer Justin Lang stood up to speak.
“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. As a victim of sex trafficking and assault, this is an unjust sentence in the first place.”
Lang was referring to a 2012 Tennessee law that now recognizes that minors in sex work are not engaged in criminal activity but are victims of sex trafficking.
Lang concluded, “And so I ask why has Cyntoia Brown been incarcerated for 14 years for enduring harm? … Governor Haslam, you have the power and ability to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, and so I ask when will you grant her clemency, I ask what will be your legacy as you leave office, and how will you answer to this human rights violation that the state of Tennessee is committing by keeping her incarcerated?
Haslam responded, “… 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 said he will decide before he leaves office on Jan. 19.
He did not convince the protesters who know his record too well.
Haslam has denied 100 percent of all pardon and clemency appeals brought before him in his eight years as governor.
The youth in the audience chanted loudly for several minutes, “What do we want? Clemency! When do we want it? Now!” That exchange has gone viral and bolstered the national clamor for Brown to be set free.
With the ruling of the Tennessee Supreme Court, it is now up to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on her appeal. But current law, statewide and federal, has long placed an undue burden on women and girls who fight their abusers as guilty, as well as accused minors. U.S. prisons and jails are filled with a record number of prisoners, more than 2.3 million behind bars and 4.5 million on parole or probation.
Nashville member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Daniel Ndungu, emphasized the urgent need for all to join in a broad campaign for Cyntoia Brown. “The only true justice for Cyntoia is freedom. With Black Lives Matter Nashville and many other people locally and nationally, we in the PSL commit our support and energy for her freedom.”
Freedom for Cyntoia Brown now!