At 16, she was forced into sex trafficking. So why is she serving a life sentence for murder?

Video via PBS

Cyntoia Brown is 29 and has been an inmate at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville in the US for the last 13 years. She is serving a 51-year sentence – or ‘life’ – for first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. She will be at least 67 years old when she’s freed.

Now however, celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Cara Delevigne and T.I.are putting the spotlight on her to try to change this. They are applying social pressure in an attempt to convince everyone, anyone – from the justice system to the President – to release Brown from, what they deem to be, an unfair imprisonment by a system that failed her.

Not because she isn’t a killer. She is. But because the man she killed – Johnny Allen – was hiring her as a sex worker when she was 16 and he was 43. He had traded her from a pimp called “Kut Throat” who fed her drugs and repeatedly raped her. Brown was a victim of sex trafficking and the man she killed was one of many of her abusers.

“Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way??” singer Rihanna posted to Instagram on Tuesday alongside the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!”

The renewed interest in Brown’s case comes after a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, was recently reported on Fox News. The documentary, which was released in 2011 and took seven years to produce, makes 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.

During her trial, Brown’s birth mother testified she drank a fifth of whisky every day of her pregnancy, as reported by The New York Times. 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 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, Associated Press reports. 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.

Kim Kardashian says she’s consulting her attorneys to see “what can be done to fix this”.

“The system has failed,” the reality TV star tweeted. “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 has also tweeted Brown’s story with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.

The prosecution doesn’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 is 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. Now, she is a ‘model’ inmate, according to NewsWeek. She completed her associate’s degree from prison and is working on her bachelors. She also serves as an unpaid consultant at the Juvenile Justice system.

According to the New York Post, if her case heard today she’d be treated as a child human trafficking victim. In 2011 Tennessee legislation was changed to state that anyone 18 or younger can’t be charged with illegal sex work.

MoveOn is currently gathering signatures to petition Tennessee Governer Bill Haslam to offer Brown clemency. The ‘Free Cyntoia Brown’ campaign says simply, “She could be your daughter”, and has nearly 140,000 signatures.

To sign the petition, click here.

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