Tenn. Governor Grants Clemency To Cyntoia Brown, Who's In Prison For Murder

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 7, 2019 7:12 pm
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Cyntoia Brown is getting out of prison in Tennessee. Brown was 16 years old when she was convicted of killing a man who had paid to have sex with her. The case drew national attention after the Supreme Court ruled that most juveniles should not be sentenced to life without parole. Today, the governor of Tennessee granted her full clemency. Sergio Martinez-Beltran of member station WPLN reports.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: You are getting out in August. Those were the first words Cyntoia Brown heard from her lawyers today when the governor granted her clemency.

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KATHRYN SINBACK: I've known Cyntoia for - since the day after she was arrested, and I've never seen the peace and joy on her face that I saw today.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: That's Kathryn Sinback, Brown's attorney in juvenile court, explaining how Brown reacted when her lawyers went into the Tennessee prison for women and told her about the decision of Governor Bill Haslam. Brown has already served 15 years of a life sentence for the murder of Johnny Allen, who she claims paid her for sex. Brown was 16 at the time, and she contends she killed him in self-defense.

The governor praised Brown's rehabilitation in his decision to grant her clemency. Brown is 30 now and mentors troubled youth. She already completed a college degree while behind bars and is working on a second one. In a written statement read by Sinback, Cyntoia Brown said she will do everything she can to justify the governor's faith in her.

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SINBACK: (Reading) My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: The outgoing governor's decision to commute her sentence comes after mounting national pressure from celebrities, politicians and criminal justice advocates. And a federal appeals court has been considering whether Tennessee's requirement that Brown serve at least 51 years of a life sentence is too harsh.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled most life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual. Brown's case could serve as a legal precedent for others involving sex trafficking and minors, says Derri Smith, the executive director with End Slavery Tennessee.

DERRI SMITH: The U.S. Supreme Court has already made several key rulings saying that it's not reasonable to sentence a minor with a life sentence. And the fact that we have a cultural mind shift, obviously recognizing the effects of trauma and the exploitation that's involved, has got to have an impact on future legal decisions.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: In the meantime, Brown's own future post-release is still in question. She'll get out of prison in August. And State Senator Brenda Gilmore says she wants to make sure Brown has the appropriate support once she's out of prison.

BRENDA GILMORE: When she's released, I think she's going to need a lot of resources so that she will not ever have to look back and think that I will have to resort to prostitution to put bread on my table or have a roof over my head.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Brown will be on parole for the next 10 years. As part of her commutation, she'll need to complete her bachelor's degree, maintain employment and continue her community service. For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Nashville.

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