A woman who says she was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim when she killed a man in 2004 was granted clemency Monday by Tennessee’s governor and soon will be released from prison.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been serving a life sentence but who will be released on parole on Aug. 7 — exactly 15 years from the date she was first arrested.
“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,” Haslam said in his statement.
Brown, 30, will remain on parole supervision for 10 years on the condition she does not violate any state or federal laws, holds a job, and participates in regular counseling sessions.
Brown’s case has attracted national attention from criminal justice reform advocates, and the attention amped up as Haslam’s second and final term entered its final weeks. While law enforcement officials had opposed clemency – arguing Brown was not justified in killing Allen – celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and singer Rihanna spoke out for Brown. The governor’s office was inundated with thousands of phone calls and emails from supporters.
“Thank you Governor Haslam,” Kardashian West tweeted soon after news of the clemency decision broke, which was followed by similar high-profile responses from former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, actresses Alyssa Milano and Viola Davis.
Brown was convicted in 2006 of murdering 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen two years before. Police said she shot Allen in the back of the head at close range with a loaded gun she brought to rob him after he picked her up at a drive-in theater in Nashville to have sex with her.
However, according to her lawyers, Brown was a victim of sex trafficking who not only feared for her life but also lacked the mental state to be culpable in the slaying because she was impaired by her mother’s alcohol use while she was in the womb.
Brown expressed thanks in a statement released Monday by her legal team.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received. We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without him,” Brown said. “Let today be a testament to his saving grace.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. However, the state of Tennessee argued successfully in lower courts that it was not in violation of federal law because Brown did have a possibility for parole: She was sentenced to serve at least 51 years of her life sentence.
“Her story is a story that should be a catalyst for a lot of others, thousands of other juveniles,” said Houston Gordon, one of Brown’s lead attorneys. “We need to see this as a national awakening to change the draconian laws that allow juveniles, children, to be placed in adult prisons when they’re just children. They’re not little adults.”
During her time in prison, Brown completed her GED and took college classes. She is currently one course away from finishing a Bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb University.
Nashville Mayor David Briley praised Haslam’s decision, calling it a “great day for social justice and our city.” Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the clemency announcement shows that Tennessee “can show love, compassion and mercy” for people who have experienced trauma.
Haslam’s decision comes at a time when he’s considering his next political move in Tennessee now that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he won’t seek re-election in 2020.
Compared to Democrats, Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers remained markedly quiet on Haslam’s decision.
Gov.-elect Bill Lee offered a brief statement, saying he “respected” Haslam’s choice in the complex case and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he “appreciated” the process the governor went through to arrive at his decision.
Ed Yarborough, another attorney for Brown, joked at a Monday press conference that he was brought on as the “token Republican” in Brown’s case.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Gov. Haslam for having the wisdom and the compassion to do what he did today,” he said. “It will not be popular with everyone in Tennessee, but he did the right thing and we praise him for that.”
To date, Haslam has granted five commutations, 15 pardons, and one exoneration. The Republican says he is continuing to review and consider additional clemency requests.