Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted full clemency to Cyntoia Brown, an alleged sex trafficking victim serving a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a man who picked her up and took her to his home.
Brown, whose case drew national attention and support from celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, was 16 years old when she committed the crime in what she described as an act of self-defense.
The life sentence meant she would not have been eligible for parole until she was in her late 60s, which Haslam said was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” Haslam said.
In a statement read by her attorneys at a news conference Monday, Brown thanked the governor for his “act of mercy in giving me a second chance.”
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers and encouragement I have received,” Brown said. “We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings.”
Placed for adoption by a mother who abused alcohol, Brown had run away from her adoptive parents’ home in the months before the murder, according to court documents. The 16-year-old was living with an abusive boyfriend nicknamed “Cut Throat” who she said sexually assaulted her and forced her into prostitution.
Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent, was a stranger to Brown when he picked her up in his truck at a Sonic Drive-In and solicited her for sex, taking her to his home, Brown told authorities.
Brown admitted to shooting Allen in the back of the head while they were in his bed, after she thought she saw him pulling out a gun. In 2006, Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison.
Brown’s story spread widely in the fall of 2017 amid the #MeToo movement. Supporters rallied around her case with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, calling it an example of unjust incarceration of children and victims of sex trafficking, particularly young women of color. Kardashian highlighted the case to President Trump in a meeting in May.
Attorneys working on behalf of Brown also petitioned the state’s parole board to commute her sentence, citing her experiences as a sex trafficking victim and adversities during her childhood. Experts had testified in court proceedings that Brown may have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome in utero, affecting her mental state at the time of the crime.
Brown’s attorneys also appealed her conviction and sentence with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. More than a dozen juvenile justice advocacy groups filed briefs in support of Brown, pointing to a 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama that barred sentences of mandatory life without parole for juveniles.
The Supreme Court in 2016 ruled that inmates who were already sentenced as teenagers to mandatory life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue that they should be released from prison.
The Tennessee Board of Parole recently issued a recommendation in favor of commuting Brown’s sentence, said the governor, who issued the commutation in his final days in office.
J. Houston Gordon, one of the lawyers on Brown’s case, said the 30-year-old’s case should be seen as a “national awakening” to change laws that allow children to be placed in adult prisons.
“Her story,” Gordon said in the news conference, “should be a catalyst for a lot of others, thousands of other juveniles.”
The news of Brown’s clemency Monday drew praise from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, as well as Hollywood actors including Viola Davis and Jada Pinkett Smith.
“We are relieved to learn that Cyntoia Brown’s sentence has been commuted — but we also know that nothing will rewind her years of incarceration,” the National Women’s Law Center wrote on Twitter. “Black girls deserve better.”
While in prison, Brown has earned her GED and an associate degree with a 4.0 grade-point average, according to a statement from Haslam. She has one course left to complete her bachelor’s degree, which she expects to finish in May.
“With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” Brown said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”