Parole board split on clemency for Cyntoia Brown, decision goes to Gov. Haslam

Posted by Kara Apel
Reported by Kim St. Onge
Reported by Briona Arradondo
Posted: May 23, 2018 5:20 AM CDT


A woman serving a life sentence for murder could get a second chance after a clemency hearing Wednesday at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

Cyntoia Brown was 16 years old when she killed a man who picked her up for sex. She was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 and given a life sentence for the crime.

Brown's case has received national attention, including support from celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna. They say she is not a prostitute but is a sex trafficking victim, and they want her released from prison.

After a three-hour hearing, the board was split on what to do about Brown’s future. Of the six members present, two members said yes to letting her out early and reducing her charge to second-degree murder; two members said no, and the last two members said they would only shorten her sentence to 25 years served before the eligibility for parole in 2029.

“I always hear people say if I could go back if I could change things,” said Brown. “When you really realize you’ve done something you can’t undo, it stays with you, and it stayed with me this whole time.”

Brown’s supporters said she had been a sex trafficking victim since she was 12 years old.

“She said when she was being trafficked by Cut (her pimp) and even in her first couple of years in confinement that she did not have a personality of her own,” said Kathy Sinback, Brown’s former juvenile attorney.

Brown calls her last five years in prison transformative. She has earned a college degree, mentored others and developed relationships with a potential host family if she is released.

“It’s been a pleasure to get to know her beautiful amazing heart. I just loved her so much,” said Grant Hays, a child who visits Brown every week and is a member of the Brown’s potential host family.

The pain is still fresh for the family and friends of Johnny Allen, the man Brown killed. The lead Metro police detective on the case also came out against any clemency.

“Johnny has a voice. His family has a voice. It’s not been heard in all these years, but today I am that voice,” said Anna Whaley, the murder victim’s family friend.

About 40 people showed up to support Brown, and 14 of them spoke, including former college teachers, victim’s advocates and attorneys. Some left feeling disappointed.

“I think it does send the message to them that no matter what you do and no matter how you try there might not be justice,” said Derri Smith, the founder and CEO of End Slavery Tennessee.

The board’s recommendations will be written up in a report and go to Gov. Bill Haslam, and the governor has the final say on what happens.

Brown, now 30 years old, has spent nearly two decades behind bars. In that time, she has earned an associate's degree from Lipscomb University and is considered a model prisoner.

Since her trial, Tennessee laws have changed so teenagers can no longer be charged as prostitutes.

Derri Smith with End Slavery Tennessee says if this crime happened today, Brown would not have been sentenced to life in prison.

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

Brown is asking for mercy. If the parole board grants her request, Haslam will have the option to release her from prison.

Haslam has never chosen to do this before, but it's not unusual for governors to pardon people in their last year of office.