She has been behind bars for more than 13 years, but on Monday, interest in the story of Cyntoia Brown was reignited when celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna shared a viral post about her controversial case by a filmmaker who made a documentary about it.
Brown, now 29, was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking in Tennessee in 2004 when she fatally shot Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent who solicited sex from her, according to court documents and multiple local reports. Brown — who admitted she killed Allen by shooting him in the back of the head — becomes eligible for parole soon after she turns 69.
Here are four things to know about Brown’s case.
1. Brown Had a Traumatic Childhood and Was in State Custody for Years
Nothing was normal about Brown’s upbringing. According to the Tennessean, she was raped multiple times during her childhood after being born to an alcoholic mother, who admitted during her trial to drinking heavily while Brown was in the womb.
The paper further reports that Brown had been in and out of the custody of the Department of Children’s Services “for years.”
Brown said she was forced to prostitute by a boyfriend who essentially became the underage girl’s pimp, taking the money that she would make. She claimed she shot Allen in self-defense because she allegedly saw him reach for his gun.
2. A Documentary Has Been Made About Brown’s Case
In 2011, Brown was the subject of a PBS documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. The film was produced by Daniel H. Birman, who documented Brown’s case from the week of her arrest until her conviction almost six years later. (Birman’s social media post went viral.)
The film rekindled interest in Brown’s case. Charles Bone, a Nashville attorney, saw the film in late 2012 and decided to join Brown’s attorneys on the case. They argued for a new trial in which Brown would be allowed to testify on her own behalf — something her attorneys in her 2006 trial advised against.
After her arrest, Brown waived her Miranda rights and gave statements to Nashville police in which she described the incident in detail. Brown claimed she did not know who Allen was before he solicited her for sex. After driving to his home, she alleged he showed her his guns before they got into his bed together. Subsequently, she said, he reached underneath his bed for what she thought was a gun, so she pulled a .40-caliber handgun out of her purse and shot him.
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Brown said she took money from Allen’s wallet and took two guns before driving his truck to a nearby Walmart parking lot.
The jury rejected her claim of self-defense and found her guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery.
3. Brown’s Incarceration Has Legislators Rethinking Life Sentences for Minors
Monday was not the first time people have spoken out about Brown’s sentence. In fact, there is a movement afoot to amend the laws in Tennessee, which may provide Brown a chance at early release.
According to the Tennessean, which has covered the Brown case extensively, advocates for a change in the law cite scientific studies showing that adolescents lag behind adults in development of the parts of the brain that regulate aggression, abstract thinking and long-term planning. In addition, advocates cite research on the impact of early childhood trauma on brain development.
The paper reports that since 2014, at least 24 states have enacted new measures requiring an automatic review of life sentences imposed on teens after they have served a certain number of years — ranging from 15 to 40 years after sentencing.
Efforts are underway in Tennessee to change the law to require teens sentenced to life get a mandatory 15- or 20-year review of their sentences. If passed, Brown could have her sentence reviewed at age 31 or 36. Last year, advocates in Tennessee failed to pass a bill that would have required a review of a life sentence by the original sentencing court after 15 years.
4. Celebrities Are Speaking Out in Defense of Brown
“Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named ‘cut-throat.’ After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men, you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him.”
Rapper T.I. and actress Cara Delivigne have also used their platforms to shine new light on the case, and are calling on lawmakers to intervene. Kardashian West vowed in a social media post that she would have her attorneys look into Brown’s conviction to see if anything can be done to help her.
The movement has inspired the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown on Twitter.