Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday that he has ordered the early release of Cyntoia Brown, an alleged sex trafficking victim who had been serving a life sentence for the murder of a man who paid to have sex with her when she was 16.
Brown’s case has been championed for years by advocates of trafficking victims, as well as by celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna.
In 2004, when Brown was 16, a 43-year-old real estate agent named Johnny Allen picked Brown up at a Sonic Drive-In after agreeing to pay her $150 for a sex act and took her to his home in Nashville. According to Brown, at one point in their encounter she believed Allen was reaching for a gun under his bed, and she feared for her life. After he fell asleep, she shot him with a handgun from her purse, took money and two guns from him, and fled in his truck.
While Brown’s advocates have maintained that she, as a victim of abuse and forced prostitution, was acting largely in self-defense and took the money because she was afraid of returning without money to her pimp—a man who repeatedly raped her and forced her into prostitution when she ran away from her adoptive family—prosecutors argued that she killed Allen to rob him. Brown was tried as an adult, and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and robbery in 2006. She was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 51 years.
In 2011, a PBS documentary revived national interest in Brown’s case, and while her lawyers worked to get her a new trial, activists cited her case as an example of the need for criminal justice reform. In 2017, Rihanna posted about Brown on Instagram, further centering Brown’s case in the debate about the juvenile criminal justice system. Other celebrities such as comedian Amy Schumer, basketball star LeBron James, and actress Ashley Judd joined in calling for clemency.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam, who leaves office later in January, said in his statement. “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, who has earned a GED certificate and an associate degree in prison, thanked the governor and her supporters in a statement Monday. “I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me,” she said.
Brown will be eligible for release on Aug. 7 and will remain on parole for 10 years.