After 15 years behind bars, Cyntoia Denise Brown has at last been granted clemency by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. She is due to be released on parole on August 7.
Brown’s case sparked a national outcry as she was overlooked as a victim of sex trafficking, instead sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who bought her for sex when she was just 16-years-old.
Today, the Tennessee governor decided that punishment was far too harsh.
“This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” said Governor Haslam.
“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.”
A juvenile court found Brown competent to be tried as an adult. She was convicted of murder and robbery, and sentenced to life in prison.
Though more than a decade had passed since her trial, the harsh punishment for a teenage victim of sex trafficking sparked outrage around the US — particularly after celebrities Rihanna and Kardashian West came to her defense on social media in 2017.
Since Brown’s conviction, juvenile sentencing guidelines in Tennessee have been amended: “If Cyntoia Brown were tried today, legal experts say she would not have been tried in the same way,” said CNN affiliate WZTV anchor Stacy Case, who had been investigating reports of sex trafficking in Tennessee when she came across Brown’s story.
“Our courts today would view her as a child sex slave… she would be viewed as a victim.”
In her 2004 trial, prosecutors argued that Brown was not acting in self-defense when she shot the man who bought her, but rather attempting to rob him.
But Brown tried to explain that she was scared for her life and afraid to return home empty handed to her pimp, a man named “Cut Throat” who threatened to kill her if she tried to escape his control.
“If you look at Cyntoia’s original transcripts, they are peppered with the phrase ‘teen prostitute,'” said Derri Smith, founder and CEO of non-profit End Slavery Tennessee.
“Well we know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute…because this teen may think that she decided this was her idea to be raped multiple times a day and give money to someone else, it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”
Despite the injustices Brown has faced, she has worked to transform herself behind bars, earning an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University in 2015 and working with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to help counsel young people at risk.
“I learned that my life was — and is — not over,” said Brown.
“I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.”