The national conversation about sexual assault and harassment has cast a new spotlight on an old case.
Cyntoia Brown — who said she had been forced into prostitution by a violent boyfriend — is serving a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a 43-year-old stranger who picked her up and took her to his home. She was 16 at the time, and she won’t be eligible for parole until she is in her late 60s.
Brown is now 28, and this week celebrities have taken up the Tennessee case under the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. A social media posting went viral after Rihanna put it on Instagram on Tuesday.
Kim Kardashian also tweeted about the case Tuesday, writing “I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.”
“The system has failed,” Kardashian wrote. “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.”
“The justice system is so backwards!!!” Cara Delevingne posted on Instagram. “This is completely insane.”
Snoop Dogg posted a side-by-side comparison of the acts and sentences of Brown and Brock Turner, who had been sentenced to six months for sexual assault. (He was released after three).
The calls to free Brown come as stories of sexual assault by powerful men have dominated the news cycle and after a slew of celebrities also took up the case of rapper Meek Mill, who was sentenced to two to four years for a parole violation.
An online petition calling for Brown’s release has garnered more than 200,000 signatures.
Last week, the Nashville Fox affiliate ran a story about Brown, and showed portions of a 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” in which filmmaker Dan Birman explored Brown’s familial legacy of abuse and her own history of being sex trafficked.
“We started the conversation,” Birman told the Fox affiliate. “This is a young girl who’s at the tail end of three generations of violence against women.”
“Me Facing Life” also helped spark a push in Tennessee to reform the state’s juvenile justice laws.
During trial, Brown said a stranger, Johnny Mitchell Allen, had taken her to his home and had told her about his numerous guns. Brown said Allen reached under a bed for what she thought was a gun, so she pulled a .40-caliber handgun out of her purse and shot him. She then took two guns, some money out of his wallet and drove his truck to a Walmart parking lot.
Brown was tried as an adult. The jury rejected her self-defense claim.
Derri Smith, chief executive of End Slavery Tennessee, said in a statement Wednesday that Brown does not deny killing Allen, but is asking for her sentence to be changed to second-degree murder.
The advocate also highlighted the support from Rihanna, Kardashian and other celebrities.
“Think about Ashton Kutcher and the difference he has made around the issue of human trafficking,” Smith said. “Celebrities can use their platform to begin conversation about societal issues.”
Brown’s supporters can help by sending letters to the head of the state’s parole board and the governor, backing Brown’s clemency petition, Smith added.
Had Brown been charged today, “she would have been seen as a victim. She would not have been tagged a ‘teen prostitute’ as she was in trial,” Smith argued. “There is NO such thing as a teen prostitute. Any minor used for commercial sex is a human trafficking victim.”
During her time incarcerated, Brown received an associate degree. She has “served time and used it well, to help other youth raised similarly to her,” Smith said.