- Cyntoia Brown fatally shot a man who hired her as a sex worker when she was 16. She says it was in self-defense.
- As a minor, she was sentenced to life in prison.
- After serving 15 years, she was granted clemency Monday following a social-media campaign.
Cyntoia Brown, a woman who received a life sentence after fatally shooting a man who hired her for sex when she was 16 years old and being trafficked, has been granted clemency after a star-studded effort to gain her release from prison.
Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee granted a full commutation to Brown on Monday, making her eligible for release on August 7, at which point she will face a 10-year period of parole.
The act cut out the 39 years Brown had left before she could petition parole. But the moment of catharsis was a long time coming.
This is the story of how Brown found herself behind bars and eventually gained her freedom.
Cyntoia Brown was born with fetal alcohol syndrome on January 29, 1988, to a home facing drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. She was eventually given up for adoption.
- STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
In court, Brown’s biological mother testified with a psychologist that Brown was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition caused by alcohol exposure in the womb. The condition can cause brain damage and other complications.
She was born into a household afflicted with mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.
“Bipolar, personality disorder, suicidal, manic depressive,” Brown’s biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, said in court footage shown in a 2011 documentary, listing conditions she’s been diagnosed with. Mitchell said in court that she drank up to a fifth of whiskey a day while pregnant with Brown. She also said she used crack cocaine.
Eventually, Brown was placed for adoption.
Brown ran away from her adoptive home in 2004 when she was 16. She was forced into prostitution by a 24-year-old man named Garion McGlothen, who went by “Cut Throat.”
- Spencer Platt/Getty
According to court documents, Brown testified that after running away from her adoptive home, where she was abused by her stepfather, she stayed with friends and used drugs and alcohol. She met 24-year-old Garion McGlothen, who went by “Cut Throat,” in July 2004.
Brown said he abused and sexually assaulted her and eventually forced her into prostitution.
On August 7, 2004, Brown killed a man who hired her for sex. She said she shot him because she thought he was reaching for a gun.
- Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Brown shot and killed 43-year-old real-estate agent Johnny Allen on August 7, 2004, after he hired her for sex.
Brown testified that throughout their encounter at Allen’s home, he repeatedly brought up guns he said he owned and told her he had been in the military and was a “sharpshooter.” She called the victim “weird” in court documents and said she would have run were it not for a gun cabinet in the room.
She said that at one point Allen grabbed her “really hard” before rolling over “maybe to reach for something” she thought could have been a gun.
She grabbed her own gun, which McGlothen had given to her, and shot Allen.
After shooting Allen, Brown said, she took two of his guns and money out of his wallet because Allen hadn’t paid her and she feared returning to McGlothen empty-handed. She drove Allen’s car to a Walmart parking lot.
In 2006, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole after 51 years served.
- Tennessee Department of Corrections
Brown was arrested the next day after calling 911 about the shooting.
She was tried as an adult, and the prosecution argued that because she had stolen items after the shooting, it could not have been an act of self-defense.
In August 2006, Brown was convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, and aggravated robbery. In October 2006, she was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole only after she served 51 years, at which point she would be 69 years old.
She was imprisoned in the maximum-security Tennessee Prison for Women.
After seeing a documentary on Brown, a Nashville attorney took interest in Brown’s case and eventually petitioned for a new trail.
- Bone Law
Nashville attorney Charles Bone was one of many people who learned about Brown’s case from a 2011 documentary called “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.”
In 2012, Bone petitioned for a new trial for Brown, arguing for the introduction of new evidence of fetal alcohol syndrome and to give Brown an opportunity to testify in her own defense.
In 2014, a state appeals court sided with a lower court’s ruling rejecting a petition for a retrial.
- Flickr / Joe Gratz
A state appeals court ruled in 2014 that Brown’s case should not be reheard. The rejection was one of many that Brown would face on her road to freedom.
In 2015, a group including Brown’s original lawyer attempted to get a law passed that would mandate court reviews of life sentences given to juveniles.
- REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
A wave of new measures that would mandate the review of life sentences given to juveniles swept the US in 2014.
In 2015, Kathy Sinback, Brown’s original attorney, began work with a group of other Tennessee activists, lawyers, and lawmakers to try to pass a similar law in Tennessee.
The bill was introduced in 2016 and failed to get approval.
By 2016, 24 states passed laws mandating such reviews, partly inspired by Brown’s story.
Brown graduated from Lipscomb University’s LIFE program in 2015 with an associate’s degree. She has been called a model inmate.
- Lipscomb University Facebook
Brown earned her GED certificate and in 2015 graduated with a 4.0 GPA and an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University’s LIFE program, which partners with the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Brown has one class left before completing her bachelor’s degree.
The Tennessean reported that Brown mentors other female prisoners.
In 2017, Brown’s story went viral on social media. Celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, reposted a version of Brown’s story on their feeds.
- Mark Ganzon/Getty Images for Fenty Beauty
In November 2017, Rihanna reposted a text post expressing outrage at Brown’s situation.
Rihanna wrote in her caption, “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!”
The post has nearly 2 million likes as of this writing.
Kim Kardashian West also shared the post on her Twitter, writing, “The system has failed.”
The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
In May 2018, the Tennessee Board of Parole, overseen by Tennessee’s governor, announced that it would hold a clemency hearing for Brown.
In May 2018, Tennessee’s Board of Parole held a clemency hearing for Brown.
At the hearing, which lasted three hours, two out of six board members recommended commuting her sentence, two recommended making her eligible for parole after 25 years (she had served 15 then), and two recommended denying clemency.
Brown’s case reached a federal court of appeals in June 2018.
As Brown’s case was being considered by Tennessee’s governor, it was also taken up in federal court.
In June 2018, the 6th US District Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case challenging the constitutionality of Brown’s life sentence on the premise that sentencing a minor to life in prison was cruel and unusual punishment.
The panel of judges appeared to agree that Tennessee’s laws were arbitrary and confusing.
In August 2018, the 6th Circuit asked Tennessee’s Supreme Court to clarify its sentencing laws.
In December 2018, the state’s high court clarified that Brown was eligible for parole after 51 years in prison.
After months of deliberation, Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency on Monday.
Haslam granted Brown clemency in the last month of his governorship.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said. “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.”
Brown thanked God in a statement released by her lawyers: “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.”