A Tennessee woman serving a life sentence for killing a man who solicited her for sex has been granted clemency.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam ordered the release of Cyntoia Brown, 30, who has been in jail since 2006.
At age 16, she was tried as an adult for murdering a Nashville estate agent out of what she claimed to be self defence.
Over the past decade, the Tennessee native’s bids for clemency have sent her story global, capturing the attention of celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevingne and Rihanna.
In an overnight statement, Mr Haslam ordered Brown to be released to parole supervision on August 7 this year.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” the statement said.
“Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms Brown has taken to rebuild her life.
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”
Brown has earned an associate degree while in prison, and gave thanks for her release.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers and encouragement I have received,” she said in a statement.
“We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings.
“The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would never have made it without him.”
Here’s why her story has reverberated around the world.
WHO IS CYNTOIA BROWN?
Cyntoia Brown did not have an easy life. She was born in Tennessee to a single 16-year-old mother, Georgina Mitchell, who drank during her pregnancy.
After Cyntoia’s birth, Georgina began to abuse crack cocaine, rendering her completely incapable of caring for her daughter.
Cyntoia was put up for adoption, but at the age of 16, she ran away from home and began associating with a 24-year-old man who would soon become her pimp.
Garion McGlothen, known as “Kut-Throat” or simply “Kut”, was unstable and abusive. Cyntoia later claimed the man would frequently choke her and pull guns on her.
The pair began to live in motels and did drugs, with Cyntoia forced into sex work to support the two of them.
Cyntoia later testified: “He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a sl*t, and nobody (would) want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore.”
HOW CYNTOIA ENDED UP BEHIND BARS
In August 2004, Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen was found naked in his home with a gunshot wound to the back of his head.
Cyntoia, who was then just 16, told police the man had picked her up at a Sonic Drive-in.
According to court documents, Cyntoia told investigators that Mr Allen had showed her his collection of guns.
She said she was a sex worker who had only shot him in self defence, believing he was reaching for a gun under his bed with the intention of killing her.
She also said she only went with him on the orders of her abusive boyfriend. In her appeal, she said she only took the victim’s money because she was afraid of what might happen to her if she went back to her abusive partner empty-handed.
However prosecutors argued that she killed him intentionally to rob him.
Prosecutors in turn argued that she had gone with Mr Allen with the intention of robbing him.
In 2006, Cyntoia was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery, and was later sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Even though she was a juvenile when sentenced, she was tried as an adult.
Cyntoia’s defence lawyers also argued that she was born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as a result of her mother drinking during pregnancy.
In 2011, Cyntoia’s story gained global traction following the release of the PBS documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which explored her history and future.
The documentary aimed to challenge the adult criminal justice system as a venue for punishing minors.
The year after its release, Cyntoia argued that her sentence was unconstitutional, citing a 2012 ruling that declared a life sentence without parole for minors was not constitutional.
The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a statement in response saying: “Under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years. However, the 60-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 per cent, or nine years, by earning various sentence credits.”
CYNTOIA BECOMES A GLOBAL CAUSE
In the years following her prison sentence, Cyntoia earned her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University, and is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree.
Prior to her release, a number of high-profile celebrities joined the cause to see her freed from prison.
The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
Rapper Snoop Dogg compared her story to that of US convicted rapist Brock Turner, who was freed after just six months in jail.
Turner’s case prompted an international outcry for being too lenient, after the trial made headlines around the world following the victim’s excruciating impact statement.
Governor Haslam considered her clemency request after he was confronted about the issue while speaking at an event in November.
At the event, Justin Lang, a higher-education professional and Black Lives Matter member of Nashville, asked the Governor: “Since we’re here talking about education, I wanted to ask a question about one of your Tennessee students and a graduate of Lipscomb University, Cyntoia Brown,” he said, to audience applause.
“As a victim of sex trafficking and assault, this is an unjust sentence in the first place,” he went on. “She has not been treated as a victim of trafficking and not given the justice she deserves.
“The Supreme Court’s decision that Cyntoia must serve 51 years before she can be considered for parole is a human rights issue. And so I ask you, what really, functionally, is the difference between life without parole — which is no longer constitutional as the United States Supreme Court declared for minors, for any crime — and ‘you might get parole after 51 years,’ for a victim of sex trafficking?”
Governor Haslam responded: “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.”