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Sexual Abuse Survivor Cyntoia Brown Released From Jail After Receiving Life Sentence for Murder


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

On Wednesday, sex trafficking survivor Cyntoia Brown was released from prison after serving 15 years for killing a 43-year-old man who solicited a then-teenage Brown for sex. She claimed self-defense but was sentenced to life in prison until advocacy efforts from Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and others helped secure her early release.

In 2004, Brown shot and killed Johnny Allen because she was afraid he was going to pull out a gun on her. Allen had picked up the teenager at a fast-food restaurant for sex. After shooting Allen, Brown fled in his truck with his guns and money. Her legal team testified her actions were an act of self-defense, especially in context with the abuse she was experiencing. Regardless, courts handed Brown a life sentence in 2006 at the Tennessee Prison for Women. She would have been eligible for parole in 51 years, in her 60s.

According to NPR, at an appeal trial, Brown testified she was a teenage runaway who, at the time of the killing, was being trafficked by a drug dealer who was abusive and forced her into having sex for money. Sex trafficking is common around the world, including every state in the U.S. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 4.8 million people are forced into sexual exploitation.

The average age victims enter the sex trade industry is between 12 and 14 years old, and a large majority of them are girls. A 2018 Federal Human Trafficking Report found more than 50% of criminal human trafficking cases involved sex trafficking of children only. Like many other forms of sexual abuse, children are groomed into abusive relationships with adults who sell them for sex to earn money.

Girls involved in sex trafficking are often viewed, even in the legal system, as consenting participants. However, children under the age of consent cannot legally give consent to sex with an adult — it is a crime for adults exploit children for sex under the age of consent, which varies state to state. In Tennessee, where Brown lived, the age of consent is 18 years old, at 16 years old, Brown could not legally consent to any sexual activity.

Given the strict sentence Brown received and the traumatic situation she was in at the time of the crime, her case received a lot of attention. PBS created a documentary called “Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” outlining the details of the case in 2011. Advocates and celebrities, like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, also advocated for a reduction in Brown’s life sentence using the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.

“Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?? cause….. Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” Rihanna posted on Instagram in 2017. “To each of you responsible for this child’s sentence I hope to God you don’t have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already!”

In January, outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown, now 31 years old, clemency, which gave her an early release date. The case put a spotlight on Tennessee’s strict sentencing laws. While the Supreme Court ruled life sentences for most juveniles are “cruel and unusual,” because Brown was eligible for parole at age 67, she technically hadn’t received a life sentence, according to Tennessee courts.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said when he granted her clemency. “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. Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”

According to a press release from the Tennessee department of corrections, Brown was released per her commuted sentence on Wednesday. She will be on parole for 10 years and must comply with several conditions, including attending counseling and doing community service. While in jail, Brown earned a GED and bachelor’s degree.

Her lawyers said she would not be giving interviews following her release. In a statement released by her attorneys in January after learning she would be released, Brown thanked those who supported her and said she wanted to prevent other girls from experiencing what she did.

“I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received,” she said, according to Nashville Public Radio. “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

A memoir about Brown’s experiences titled “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System” is set to be published Oct. 15.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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