The Cyntoia Brown Case: Will She Be Granted Clemency?

Cyntoia Brown was convicted of first-degree murder at 16 years old.
Credit: CBS NEWS

The 30-year-old was convicted of first-degree murder at 16, even though she says she was being sex trafficked, and now advocates are hoping she will be granted clemency.

The case of Cyntoia Brown, who was just 16 when she was convicted of first-degree murder, has been making national headlines for some time, and last week a Tennessee Supreme Court ruled she must serve 51 years before she is eligible for parole. 

Brown is serving a life sentence for the murder she committed as a teen, although she says she was a victim of sex trafficking, according to court documents. 

Now, advocates are continuing to plea with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to grant clemency for 30-year-old Brown due to the circumstances surrounding her crime. Haslam is set to leave office next month and it is common practice for governors to grant clemency at the end of their terms. 

“The fact that there were mitigating circumstances, that she was the victim of sex trafficking at the time all goes to argue that she might deserve some prison time for what she’s done but a life sentence seems unduly harsh,” Steven Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis, told 

“I think that there are certainly people in Tennessee who have been convicted under less mitigating circumstances, who were adults at the time of the offense, but still had shorter sentences than this.”

Crime & Sentencing

At the time of the murder, Brown’s boyfriend, a 24-year-old nicknamed “Cut Throat,” had already forced her into prostitution and was sexually abusing her, according to claims contained in a 2014 court petition for her appeal.

She’d also grown up in an abusive home and had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, according to a 2011 documentary “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.”

On Aug. 7 2004, Brown, then 16, was reportedly sold for sex to Johnny Mitchell Allen, 43. 

When she got back to Allen’s house, Brown told authorities she saw a gun in a cabinet. She said she tried to avoid Allen’s advances but when he reached under his bed, she felt her life was in danger and shot him with a gun she was carrying in her own purse. 

The prosecution argued, however, that Brown had intended to rob Allen because she took his wallet after the murder. Brown claimed she took it because she was afraid to go back to her boyfriend without money.

She was sentenced to serve concurrent life sentences and eight additional years on the charges of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery, making her ineligible for parole until the age of 69.

Media Attention

Brown’s story initially received attention in 2011 when the documentary about her case first surfaced, and her lawyer, Charles Bone, decided to represent her pro bono after watching it.

In 2017, the case was thrust back into the spotlight after celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian posted about it on social media. The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown quickly became popular. 

Advocates are hoping the attention brings about justice. Last week, democratic leaders also spoke out in support of Brown. 

"Do not kick this decision down the road for Gov.-elect [Bill] Lee," Sen. Brenda Gilmore said in regards to Gov. Haslam's ability to grant clemency. "To keep her in prison for 51 years is another travesty."

In 2012, a U.S. Supreme Court decision found it was unconstitutional to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Even though Brown’s sentence has the possibility of parole, many argue her sentence was unjust, especially because they say she was a victim of sex trafficking. 

“The fact that the victim was a minor at the time of the offense means a lot. The Supreme Court has already said that it is unconstitutional to have a mandatory life without parole sentence for any crime committed when the defendant was a minor…,” Mulroy said. “Most industrialized democracies around the world wouldn’t even have this kind of a life with parole for anybody who was a minor at the time they committed the crime.”

A Hope for Clemency

Brown was given a clemency hearing in May where many people spoke on her behalf.

A friend of Allen, Anna Whaley, also spoke, saying, "This was not a case of self defense. Johnnie’s life mattered. Johnnie was loved and he is missed dearly."

The Tennessee Board of Parole reached a split decision on the matter. Two of the board’s six members voted to grant clemency, two voted to deny it and two voted for Brown to be eligible for parole in 25 years, meaning she would have to serve 11 more years. 

Gov. Haslam said his office is reviewing Brown’s case when he was asked about it while speaking at an event on higher education earlier this month. Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University while imprisoned.

“We’re reviewing a lot of cases and while Cyntoia’s case has gotten a lot of publicity, I don’t think you want us to treat hers any different than a whole lot of cases that I think people want us to review,” Haslam said.

Mulroy said he’s not so sure about the outcome for Brown. He said there have been a number of cases that were seemingly good candidates for granting clemency, but it was not forthcoming.

“The defendant was young [and] underage at the time the crime was committed, the fact there has been national outcry may help in this particular instance, but I wouldn’t count on it,” Mulroy said. 

A petition on has more than 600,000 signatures calling for Brown’s release.