The advocacy surrounding the case of Cyntoia Brown — the sex-trafficked teen serving a life sentence for murdering a man who solicited her — might help her obtain early release, a legal expert tells PEOPLE.
University of Memphis professor Steve Mulroy tells PEOPLE that Brown — the 29-year-old woman who, at the age of 16, murdered a 43-year-old man — could have her life sentence commuted by this time next year.
The decision to free her rests entirely with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Haslam has been Tennessee’s governor since 2011, and his term in office ends after 2018.
“Usually, a governor will wait until the end of their second term to make any commutations. If he takes any action at all, it would not be until late next year,” Mulroy says, noting that Haslam has not granted a commutation while in office.
Last month, interest in Brown’s case spiked online when Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna both shared a post on social media featuring an image of Brown, and a statement about her case.
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.
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Brown, who was raped several times as the child of an alcoholic mother, was a teen victim of sex trafficking in Tennessee in 2004 when she fatally shot Johnny Mitchell Allen. The middle-age man had solicited sex from her, according to court documents. Brown becomes eligible for parole after she turns 69.
Brown said she was forced to prostitute by an older boyfriend who essentially became the underage girl’s pimp, taking the money that she would make. She admitted she shot Allen in the back of the head, but claimed she shot him in self-defense because she allegedly saw him reach for his gun.
Brown told cops 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.
However, 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.
Brown’s attorneys have stated their intention to file a clemency petition before Christmas.
Mulroy tells PEOPLE commutations are something of a rarity in Tennessee, with less than 1 percent of all such requests granted.
“But in this case, I think the national focus helps,” Mulroy explains. “There is also a compelling argument for commutation here. The governor only has a year left in office, and has tended to be more moderate than your average Tennessee Republican, who are tough on law and order issues. I suppose there’s a chance it could happen.”
Typically in Tennessee, parole boards consider commutation requests. But Brown won’t be eligible for parole for decades, says Mulroy, who has been teaching law at the University of Memphis for 17 years.
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According to Mulroy, Haslam could move to commute Brown’s sentence entirely, reducing it to time served, or he could shave off enough time to make her “parole eligible, which would allow the parole board to consider her case.”
From what Mulroy’s read about Brown, she’s a good candidate for early release by the parole board.
“The legal standard for commutation of a sentence is someone who makes exceptional strides in self-improvement and rehabilitation, to the point where they are no longer considered to be a threat,” he explains. “She appears to be a model prisoner and got a bachelor’s degree. In addition to the tragic circumstances that got her to commit the crime in the first place, and the national spotlight she now has on her case, since she has been incarcerated, she really seems to have turned her life around.”