Cyntoia Brown should be free

Camille White-Avian reports on the new attention that is being paid to the case of Cyntoia Brown, who has spent more than a decade in jail.

Artwork by Denise RomeroArtwork by Denise Romero

MORE THAN a decade after Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison, needed attention is being paid to the case of the 16-year-old Black sex trafficking victim who fatally shot a man in self-defense.

Supporters, including several celebrities, are raising awareness of her case and calling for it to be reopened.

"The system has failed," Kim Kardashian-West tweeted in November. "It's heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what's right. I've called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown"

At the time of her arrest in 2004, Brown said that she had been forced into prostitution at the age of 16 and repeatedly raped and abused by a sex trafficker/pimp.

Brown explained to the jury that Johnny Mitchell Allan picked her up in a Nashville parking lot and took her to his home for sex, and when she got there, she thought he was going to kill her for resisting him, so she shot him in self-defense.

Despite the fact that she was just 16, Brown was tried as an adult. The jury rejected her defense and convicted her of first-degree murder in 2006, and she was sentenced to a mandatory life in prison term, with a possibility of parole only after 51 years.

What you can do

Letters of support can be sent to:
Ms. Cyntoia Brown
Inmate #410593
Tennessee Prison for Women
Unit 1 West, D-49
3881 Stewarts Lane Nashville, TN 37218

Contact the governor of Tennessee on Cyntoia Brown's behalf:
The Honorable Bill Haslam
Governor of Tennessee State Capitol, 1st Floor
600 Charlotte Ave
Nashville, TN 37243

The #MeToo campaign against sexual assault, sparked by dozens of women coming forward with their stories of sexual assault by producer Harvey Weinstein, has played a key role in drawing renewed attention to Brown's battle against a deeply racist and sexist criminal justice system.

Brown's case is in the spotlight today thanks to a social media campaign that includes including several well-known figures, such as Cara Delevingne, who is one of Weinstein's accusers, Rihanna, LeBron James and Snoop Dogg.

According to the Root, Kardashian-West intends to dispatch a team of lawyers to work on Brown's case, including high-powered Los Angeles criminal attorney Shawn Holley, who worked with Kardashian's late father, Robert Kardashian, to defend O.J. Simpson.

A 2011 documentary produced by PBS's Independent Lens, called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story, has gone viral. In it, director Daniel Birman follows Brown's case from the hearing that determined she be tried as an adult, the murder trial, and then her subsequent sentencing to life without the possibility of parole until her late 60s.

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DEVASTATING SEEMS like a mild word to frame the life that Brown was born into. Generational poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness all exist in her biological family.

In interviews, Cyntoia describes multiple rapes performed by her trafficker/pimp, "Kut Throat," his friends and other men. Allan, the man Brown never denied killing, was 43 years old when he solicited her for sex in a parking lot, and while it's possible Allan didn't know her age, she appears young in the documentary, making it unlikely that he didn't understand he was purchasing sex from a person who was legally a child.

At the time of her trial, Brown was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder after a two-hour meeting with a psychiatrist appointed by the court to evaluate her, and who seems in the documentary to be sympathetic to her situation.

Brown's mother had a history of drinking and drug use during her pregnancy, and in 2012, Cyntoia was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which means that she is unable to make decisions in high-pressure situations.

Contrary to prosecutors' claim that Brown killed Allen in order to rob him, Brown said she shot Allen because she thought he was reaching for a gun under his bed.

The system failed Brown, as it has millions of women like her who languish in prison for actions they took in order to defend their own lives.

According to Bitch magazine:

In California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67 percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. In New York state, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person.

It's likely even worse than that because, as the Bitch article continues, "these are just two specific studies; no governmental agency collects data on how frequently abuse plays a direct role to prison nationwide."

How many women have stories similar to Brown but never catch the eye of celebrities with a platform and access to adequate legal defense?

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RIGHT NOW, we are in a special moment when increased attention is being paid to women's experiences of sexual assault, in large part thanks to the #MeToo campaign. Cyntoia Brown's case highlights so much of what is wrong with our current justice system--from the violence of poverty to how vulnerable the intersection of racism, sexism and economic hardship can leave a person.

In the 1970s, the case of another Black woman named Joan Little brought national attention to many of the issues that Brown's case exposes today. In jail for a variety of charges in 1974, Little killed her white jailer Clarence Alligood in self-defense during an attempted rape.

Little's case would not seen the light of day had it not been for activists from the Black Power and civil rights movements like Angela Davis, the Black Panther Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Council and others who banded together in the "Free Joan Little" movement.

Little was found not guilty--an outcome that is hard to imagine today and was made possible by the larger movement against racial and gender oppression being fought around her.

The fact that Cyntoia Brown's case has a renewed spotlight is absolutely related to this past year--from the Women's March on Trump's first day in office to the #MeToo campaign. A new generation of activists are learning that winning one fight can give us the confidence to fight the next one.

Brown herself is feeling the impact of the recent surge of support. "Just to see all the people and all the different organizations who believe in me and who want to stand up for me, it's humbling and mind-blowing," Brown told her attorney.

Cyntoia Brown is now a 29-year-old woman, and has served 13 years for shooting a man who abused her. It's up to us to make sure she is not forced to serve out her life sentence.

To #FreeCyntoiaBrown and ultimately prevent other children from facing what she faced, we will need to build networks of activists that take on cases like hers and the crimes of the justice system in general.