Cyntoia Brown, who served 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man who had picked her up when she was a teenage trafficking victim, was released from a Tennessee prison Wednesday, the Department of Corrections said.
Brown’s story made national headlines, raised awareness of the plight of trafficked young people and inspired a push for criminal justice reform in Tennessee.
In January, the state’s governor at the time, Bill Haslam, bowed to pressure from lawmakers, activists and celebrities and granted her clemency.
Placed into adoption as a child, Brown, now 31, ran away from her adoptive family at 16 and lived in a motel with a pimp who raped her and forced her into prostitution, according to court documents.
In 2004, Johnny Allen, 43, a real estate broker, picked up Brown at a Nashville restaurant and drove her to his home after she agreed to engage in sexual activity for $150, the documents say.
Brown testified that, at one point when they were in his bedroom, she thought he was reaching for a gun to kill her. She shot him in his sleep with a handgun that had been in her purse, took money and two guns and fled, according to the documents.
She was arrested and tried as an adult on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. In 2006, Brown was convicted by a Davidson County jury of those charges and sentenced to life in prison. She would not have been eligible for parole until 2055.
When Haslam granted her clemency, he set her release for Aug. 7, which commuted her sentence to 15 years from the date she was arrested.
Brown’s legal team said in a statement Monday that Brown was declining interview requests immediately after leaving prison. “I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation,” she said in the statement.
While in prison, Brown was described by supporters as a model prisoner. She earned her high school equivalency diploma and an associate degree with a 4.0 GPA through Lipscomb University, and she started working on a bachelor’s degree.
Over the years, her case attracted increasing attention, propelled by support from celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West. Lawmakers in Tennessee urged Haslam to grant clemency before his term ended, pointing out that since her conviction, the laws about trying teenagers as adults had changed.
But a detective who had worked on the murder case urged the governor to oppose clemency.
Haslam, a Republican, had noted when announcing his decision that Brown had acknowledged committing “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,” he said.
Brown will be under supervised parole until Aug. 7, 2029. The Department of Corrections said in a statement Monday that she had prepared for her release by meeting with counselors to design a re-entry plan, which includes placement in a transition center and continuing her studies.
Her lead lawyer, Charles Bone, said he had been “honored” to lead her team of lawyers and supporters for the past nine years.
He added, “When her story is told in much greater detail, the words which describe her success include redemption, education, rehabilitation, salvation, mercy and freedom.” —(The New York Times)