NASHVILLE — In 2004, Johnny Allen, a real estate broker in his 40s, picked up a 16-year-old girl named Cyntoia Brown at a drive-in restaurant here. Mr. Allen bought her some food and then took her to his house, agreeing to pay her $150 for sex. Ms. Brown shot him to death as he slept, taking his money and two of his handguns with her when she fled in his truck.
It’s easy to understand why prosecutors at Cyntoia Brown’s trial in 2006 saw this as a slam-dunk case. A prostitute, a robbery, the coldblooded murder of a sleeping man: How much nuance can there be in such a scenario? The jury apparently agreed, finding Ms. Brown guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled against sentencing juveniles to life without parole, but last month the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Ms. Brown’s sentence on the grounds that she would be eligible for parole when she is 69 years old.
But in the case of teenage criminals, even teenagers guilty of the most hideous crimes, there are no slam-dunk cases. Ms. Brown’s attorneys argued that she had killed Mr. Allen in self-defense, fearing for her life, and that she had taken his guns and his money out of fear of her pimp. (A 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” details her enslavement to the pimp, who was known as Cut Throat.)
“If you look at Cyntoia’s original transcripts, they are peppered with the phrase ‘teen prostitute,’” Derri Smith, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit End Slavery Tennessee, told CNN. “We know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute … because this teen may think that she decided this was her idea to be raped multiple times a day and give money to someone else, it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”
On Jan. 7, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, commuted Ms. Brown’s sentence. She will be paroled on Aug. 7, exactly 15 years from the date of her arrest. “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Mr. Haslam said. “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.”
It was an unexpected move. Harsh sentences aren’t exactly rare in the blood-red states, and Republican governors, even relatively moderate ones like Mr. Haslam, are generally loath to intervene. Last September Mr. Haslam declined to commute the sentence of Edmund Zagorski, a death-row prisoner who, like Ms. Brown, had lived an exemplary life in prison. In Mr. Zagorski’s case, transformation was accompanied by execution.
There are differences here, of course: At the time of the murders, Ms. Brown was a minor being kept as a sex slave, while Mr. Zagorski was an adult dealing drugs. Politically, though, there are risks in showing compassion to any murderer. Mr. Haslam will soon be leaving office after eight years, it’s true, but he is also the heir apparent to the United States Senate seat that will be vacated by Lamar Alexander in 2020.
In commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, Mr. Haslam was bucking a huge law-and-order contingent in this state. The six-member parole board who presided over Ms. Brown’s clemency hearing last May was divided, with two recommending that her sentence be commuted to time served, two recommending parole after 25 years and two recommending no clemency at all. The police detective who investigated the murder urged Mr. Haslam not to pardon her. “First and foremost, Cyntoia Brown did not commit this murder because she was a child sex slave as her advocates would like you to believe,” he wrote in a letter to the governor. “Cyntoia Brown’s motive for murdering Johnny Allen in his sleep was robbery.”
It doesn’t help Mr. Haslam’s prospects that most of the voices calling for him to pardon Cyntoia Brown are political liabilities. Like Memphis, Nashville is a blue dot in the red sea of Tennessee, and the state legislature’s highest priority seems to be passing laws that undercut liberal policies enacted by its two largest cities. So when the Metropolitan Council in Nashville unanimously voted to urge the governor to pardon Cyntoia Brown, and when Nashville’s mayor, David Briley, later praised the governor’s decision to offer clemency, they weren’t doing Mr. Haslam any favors. Neither were celebrities like Ashley Judd, Rihanna, Amy Schumer and Kim Kardashian West, all of whom have taken up Ms. Brown’s cause over the years, or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected Democrat from New York, who tweeted her praise of Mr. Haslam.
He commuted Ms. Brown’s sentence anyway.
It was an “act of mercy,” according to Ms. Brown, and she thanked the governor in a statement: “I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.”
In this country we like to profess outrage at the primitive understanding of justice at work in other parts of the world — at the hangings, at the beheadings, at the murder sentences for extramarital affairs. But we live in a country where children can stand trial as adults and where our immigration policy includes separating nursing infants from their mothers pleading for asylum. Not everyone in other parts of the world adheres to such harsh notions of justice, and not everyone here adheres to the harsh border-control measures our president celebrates. There will always be disputes about what “justice” means.
As a country, we continue to get many questions of right and wrong entirely wrong. We seem to be a long way from knowing the difference between a crime motivated by evil and a crime motivated by profound fear, or desperation, or mental illness, or cognitive disability. We’re a long way from understanding that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. A long way from recognizing that racial bias pervades our criminal justice system so thoroughly that despair is more common in many of our communities than justice will ever be.
But there is hope when the governor of Tennessee chooses mercy and understanding over the strict letter of the law. There is hope when a young woman can walk out of prison into the light of freedom after 15 years behind bars for a crime she committed as an endangered and exploited child. We may never agree on what real justice looks like, but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do.