Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman controversially serving a life sentence in prison for murdering a man who solicited her for sex when she was a teenage girl, has been struck by the support she’s received from stars like Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna.
“We were very, very appreciative of the fact that such an incredible number of celebrities would join our plea,” said Brown’s attorney, Charles Bone, according to The New York Times.
Brown was 16 years old in 2004 when she fatally shot 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Mitchell Allen in the back of his head, according to court documents.
She said that at the time, she was being forced into prostitution by an abusive older man. She claimed she shot Allen, a stranger, because she believed he was reaching for a gun while in bed with her, after he had picked her up on the street, got her food and brought her to his home for the night.
She later testified he had asked her if she was “up for any action,” according to the Associated Press.
She said she also took money from Allen’s wallet and two guns before driving his truck to a nearby Walmart parking lot.
The jury rejected her claim of self-defense in Allen’s death and found her guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery.
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Although she has been incarcerated for more than a decade, interest in Brown’s story was reignited this week when several celebrities posted on social media about her case.
“She was thrilled by the fact that people really cared,” Bone, who said he spoke with Brown on Tuesday, told the Times.
Brown becomes eligible for parole in her 60s. According to testimony at her 2006 trial, she “had been raped multiple times in her young life and … had been in and out of the custody of the Department of Children’s Services for years,” the Tennessean reported.
When she was 16 she lived in a motel with a pimp called “Kut Throat” who raped and abused her while forcing her into prostitution, Bone told the Times.
She met Allen while she was out on the street on Aug. 4, 2004, because Kut Throat had told her to go make some money, she reportedly told a judge in 2012.
In 2011, Brown was the subject of the PBS documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. The film was directed by Daniel H. Birman, who followed Brown’s case from the week of her arrest until her conviction. (A social media post of Birman’s went viral, sparking the A-list attention.)
However, Jeff Burks, who prosecuted Brown, took a much different view of her situation than many advocates and onlookers.
“There has been a group of people who have wanted to make Ms. Brown a victim and a celebrity since this happened,” he told local TV station WZTV this week.
“She was not ‘trafficked’ nor was she a ‘sex slave,’ ” he argued. “It’s not fair to the victim and his family that the other side of this case is so seldom heard.”
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Still, some of those who met Brown in prison have been struck by her demeanor. Bone told the Times that she is eager to help other victims of sex trafficking.
“Seldom do you have someone as articulate as she is, with the ability to say: ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I want to speak out, to let the world know that this is indeed an awful problem,’ ” Bone said.
Brown reportedly earned an associate degree while behind bars and is working toward her bachelor’s.
Tennessee State Representative Jeremy Faison, who met Brown in 2015 and is regular contact with her, told the Times he was “amazed at the person I met.”
“She was kind, intelligent,” he said, noting she was also “extremely remorseful” but felt her sentence was “unjust.”
Brown said they are looking now at the possibility of a reprieve — from the court or elsewhere.
“We’re hopeful that either the court or the legislature or ultimately the governor will consider her case favorably and shorten her sentence as much as possible,” he said.