true crime

15 years into a life sentence, sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown has been given clemency.

At 30 years old, Cyntoia Brown has already served 15 years of a 51-year sentence for first-degree murder and aggravated robbery at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

Although she was convicted of killing a man named Johnny Allen, her story is a lot more complex.

At 16 years of age, Brown was hired as a sex worker by the 43-year-old. He had traded her from a pimp called “Kut Throat” who fed Brown drugs and repeatedly raped her. Brown was a victim of sex trafficking and the man she killed was one of her many abusers.

Today her case was granted clemency by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, due to her exemplary behaviour while in prison. Brown will be released from prison on August 7, but will remain on parole supervision until 2029.

After a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired, there was renewed interest in Brown’s case, reports Fox News. Released in 2011, the documentary, which took seven years to produce, made one thing clear: the 16-year-old who was tried as an adult for first-degree murder and robbery in 2006 never had a chance. Brown was born into a life that was doomed to fail.

Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Cara Delevigne and T.I. then campaigned on social media to apply pressure adn convince people from the justice system to the US President to release Brown.

In November last year, Kim Kardashian said she was consulting her attorneys to see “what can be done to fix this”.

“The system has failed,” the reality TV star tweeted at the time. “It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life!”

Lana Del Ray called the whole situation “unfair”.

Rapper T.I. also tweeted Brown’s story with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.

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According to The New York Times, during her trial, Brown’s birth mother testified she drank a fifth of whisky every day of her pregnancy. The defence called upon clinical and forensic psychiatrist Richard Adler during the appellate process in 2012 who said Brown was likely born with foetal alcohol syndrome. When she was eight months old, Brown was taken off her birth mother who’d begun smoking crack cocaine. She was adopted by a couple in Clarksville, Tennessee.

It didn’t work out and Brown ran away before she could finish primary school, The New York Times reports. She ended up on the streets and stumbled into pimp Kut Throat’s trap.

“He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” Brown told courts during the appellate process in 2012, Associated Press reports.

LISTEN: What’s it like meeting a pimp? We interviewed Louis Theroux about his new documentary.

On the night of August 6, 2004, when Brown was just 16 and being fed cocaine every day by the pimp who frequently raped and beat her, she was picked up by a client – 43-year-old Johnny Allen.

He drove her in his pickup truck to his home where he showed her his gun collection before taking her to bed, according to Associated Press. She said she began to feel afraid when he wouldn’t sleep and kept standing over her. When he lent down over the side of the bed, she said she thought he was going to shoot her so she pulled a gun out of her purse and shot him in the head.

She raided his wallet and stole two guns before fleeing. She had to take something back to Kut Throat, who was trading her to pay the rent.

However, the prosecution didn’t believe Brown was a victim of sex trafficking. Jeff Burks, who prosecuted Brown in 2006, told The New York Times on Tuesday: “It is not fair to the victim and his family that the other side of this case is so seldom heard.”

But surely, Brown was a victim, too? A girl of 16 being traded as a sex worker on the streets because she didn’t have a home is not the story of a cold-blooded killer. A baby being born to a mother addicted to drugs and alcohol surely deserves our empathy and understanding, if not a second chance.

At only 16, Brown was tried as an adult by the same system that failed to protect her. Something that would not stand today. According to the New York Post, if her case was heard from 2011 onwards, she would have been treated as a child human trafficking victim when Tennessee legislation was changed to state that anyone 18 or younger can’t be charged with illegal sex work.

And now, despite the fact that it’s taken her whole adult life to achieve justice, today she got one step closer.

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