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On Monday morning, January 7th, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam granted Cyntoia Denise Brown clemency. Brown was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 for killing Johnny Mitchell Allen, who bought her for sex when she was just 16, CNN reports. On August 7th, 2019, Brown will be released to parole supervision, the governor’s office notified in a statement. “The decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” the statement read. “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.”

In 2004, prosecuters argued that the murder was motivated by robbery and not self-defense. Brown shot Allen in the head while he was asleep, then fled the scene with his money, guns, and truck. Brown explained that Allen’s behavior made her fear for her life and she took the money because she was too scared to return to her pimp, who went by the name Cut Throat, empty-handed. Brown was deemed competent to be tried as an adult by a juvenile court; she was convicted of murder and robbery and received a life sentence.

Brown’s case, as well as the severe punishment for underage victims of sex trafficking in general, has garnered the attention and outrage of lawmakers and celebrities alike. Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and Ashley Judd are among the few stars that have taken to social media and called for Brown’s clemency. Since her conviction, Tennessee’s juvenile sentencing guidelines have been modified. Anchor Stacy Case, who had been investigating reports of sex trafficking in Tennessee when she first heard of Brown’s situation, told CNN, “If Cyntoia Brown were tried today, legal experts say she would not have been tried in the same way. Our Courts today would view her as a child sex slave… she would be viewed as a victim.”

A 2011 documentary titled “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” helped change how Tennessee handles sex trafficking crimes. In the documentary, Brown recalls the abuse she experienced at the hands of her pimp. “The first time he did something to me is when he choked me and I passed out. I made him money… he wasn’t going to let me go nowhere. He told me he’d kill me.”

Now 30 years old, Brown has spent 15 years in prison, working tirelessly to overcome her trauma. She received her associates degree from Lipscomb University in 2015 and has been working towards her Bachelor’s degree. She’s also working with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to help council young individuals. In a clip from the documentary’s filmmakers, Brown said in a phone call, “I learned that my life was and is not over. I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.” 

Header image: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story/PBS

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