Celebrities spreading awareness about Nashville woman's murder conviction

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

It was more than 13 years ago that Nashville teenager Cyntoia Brown was sent to prison for killing a man who picked her up for sex when she was just 16 years old.

News 4 was in the courtroom during Brown's trial as her attorneys argued that she killed 43- year-old Johnny Allen out of fear, following a history of abuse as a sex trafficking victim.

Shortly after her arrest, filmmaker Daniel Birman began documenting Brown's story as she embarked on a lifelong prison sentence for first-degree murder. Brown released the documentary "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story" in 2011.

Seemingly overnight Tuesday, celebrities, including Rihanna, T.I. and Kim Kardashian West, and activists took to social media calling for Brown's release. Kardashian wrote that she has called her attorneys to help.

Currently, Brown isn't eligible for parole until she is 67.

News 4 spoke with Brown's attorney Charles W. Bone, who has been working on appeals since 2010. Bone told News 4 that he and his client are surprised and encouraged by the outpouring of support on social media and the renewed interest in the case.

"She was quite excited by the attention they have given her," Bone said. "But she has been there a long time and she is a very mature, rational young woman who obviously appreciates this effort. We appreciate all this effort."

Bone said they welcome any help they can get, but will continue working on the appeal as they have done for the last several years.

"It is people, through social media, who are making this popular," Birman said. "Some are celebrities who are lending their voices, but it is millions of people who are reading and thinking about the issues. I think it touches a nerve for people who are parents or young people who are vulnerable to abuse.  And a story that raises many questions and suggests that what we see on the surface might not be what we think, is going to become a part of this necessary conversation and go viral."

Derri Smith, the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, has been in contact with Brown, who is currently at the Tennessee Prison for Women, for several months.

"Her first case, she was referred to continually as a teenage prostitute," Smith said. "I think today, she never would have received the sentence she received back then because we would have recognized she was a victim. We would have seen that she had a strong self-defense. We would've known more about what complex trauma does to the brain of a young person.”

She said there were many factors that should have been considered in Brown's case that were not.

"She didn't grow up in a home with any nurture or support," Smith said. "It was a very dysfunctional home. A mother who was raped. She was a product of that rape. Incredible layers of trauma.”

The two women will meet in a week for the first time in person.

Following Brown's trial, state laws have changed so that teenagers can no longer be charged as adult prostitutes. Some states have also reduced the amount of time juveniles can stay in jail for crimes. Brown's attorneys and advocates are pushing for more legal changes that help Brown as well.

"I hope we're going to change precedent in the way that young human trafficking survivors are seen in the courtroom," Smith said.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, visited Brown in prison and worked last legislative session to reform excessive juvenile prison sentences. His efforts failed, but Bone is hopeful they can try again next session.

Bone said their main argument on appeal, which was not heard in trial, is that Brown suffered from developmental challenges as a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. He said Brown's biological mother drank one fifth of alcohol each day during her pregnancy, resulting in brain damage.

Bone said Brown's brain was that of a 10- or 11-year-old child when she killed Allen. He said her efforts to obtain multiple degrees and mentor others are proof she wants to be productive and successful.

Despite having been confined for nearly half of her life, Brown earned her GED, an associate of arts degree from Lipscomb University, and will complete her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Lipscomb in 2018, currently with straight A’s.

The case will go before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati next year.

Bone said his team is also working on an appeal application to be presented to Gov. Bill Haslam and the Board of Parole.