Cyntoia Brown speaking at her initial trial. Brown was sentenced to life in prison. Recently, she was granted clemency and will be released in August 2019.

Illustration by Lucinda Drake

In August 2004, a girl’s life changed forever. Fourteen year old Cyntoia Brown went home with 43 year old Johnny Allen when he offered her $150 to have sex with him. Later that night, they were laying in bed when he turned over and Brown shot him in the head. She thought he was trying to harm her like the many other men that had before so she acted upon instinct. Two years later, Brown was charged as an adult and sentenced to life in prison with little to no chance at parole. Recently, in 2018, Brown was granted clemency and is set to be released in August 2019. Going through the details of her life and trial process, it is evident that Brown’s case is representative of how the justice system handles cases involving minors, especially those who are females of color.

Throughout her trial, Brown had an abundance of evidence that would have impacted the jury’s decision in her favor, but her lawyers did not share it. She was not allowed to testify on her own behalf. Brown was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, limiting her impulse control and other functions. Brown’s family also had a history of mental disorders such as manic depression and bipolar disorder. She also has many family members that have committed or attempted suicide. Brown, from the beginning, truly had no choice over what happened to her body, and her life’s path seemed to be set from the start. The prison psychologist mentioned that Cyntoia definitely has some type of mental disorder, and suggested major trust issues.

At 8 months old, Brown was sent into the foster care system, living on and off with a family member until she became a runaway at the age of 13. On the streets, she met a pimp named “Kutthroat” who took her in, sold her body to others, and forced her to work for him, while violently abusing her. Brown later testified that, “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.” What the lawyers also failed to mention was Brown’s childhood of rape and sexual abuse. Her family’s history of sexual abuse goes back three generations.

While she lived with Kutthroat, he constantly raped, choked, and abused Cyntoia. He would often hold up guns to her head and threaten her life. She was faced with more trauma than any person should ever have to go through, and she was a minor at the time, so why was her trial treated with such scrutiny? The judgement could have much to do with her race, and being a female. “I think that as a society we tend to look at women of color as less than, and that their life is of less value just because the system we’ve put in place. People looked at her as an adult instead of a young girl because in our society we tend to see women of color, especially black women, as more adult than white women,” said Franklin women’s literature teacher, Fanny Ortega. Young black girls can be seen as promiscuous just because of stereotypes that have been perpetuated by society. Another reason for charging minors as adults is the lack of proper facilities for teens from the ages of 12-17. “We have a very harsh system for kids who commit crimes, there’s nowhere else for them to go. There’s so much stacked against them, so they feel the need to put them away from the general public,” said Ortega. There is really no consistent rehabilitation system put in place for cases like Cyntoia’s, so prison is the only option.

After Cyntoia was charged, the public began to notice her unethical trial. In 2011, PBS documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired, bringing new attention to Brown’s case. The documentary shows the true side of Cyntoia’s life, and how young and innocent she really was. In the documentary, Brown reveals a heartbreaking statement of why she decided to cut all of her hair off in prison; “I don’t wanna be pretty no more, ain’t do nothing but cause trouble.” Word of her story spread quickly and soon, many people began to take Cyntoia’s side. Even Rihanna tweeted out the hashtag #FREECYNTOIABROWN. People were beginning to see the flaws in the justice system, and how they failed Cyntoia greatly, who had already spent many years in prison. Lawyers fought for her case and eventually won in January this year when Brown was finally granted the clemency she deserved.

Going forward, the public has learned a great deal about how to handle cases like Cyntoia’s due to her strength and willingness to fight back. The Tennessee Supreme Court changed a law about sentencing minors. Law 183, will make sure in situations like Cyntoia’s that the minor will be protected. While she was in prison, Cyntoia earned her bachelor’s degree and became a mentor for other sex trafficking victims. Cyntoia not only taught us how our system needs to help protect women suffering from abuse, but also how women of color are given different, harsher, standards, and that needs to change going forward. Hopefully Cyntoia can learn to adjust to regular society with her new-found freedom, and join our society again with a second chance.

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