Cyntoia Brown, The Teenage Sex Trafficking Victim Who Escaped A Life Sentence After Killing A Client

Published January 8, 2019
Updated June 4, 2021

Cyntoia Brown was prostituted as a teenager and convicted for a 2004 murder at just 16 years old. In 2019 she was granted clemency — and a second chance.

Cyntoia Brown

TennesseanCyntoia Brown during her 2019 hearing.

Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 43-year-old Johnny Allen, who she shot in the back of the head while they were in bed together.

Brown, who has maintained that she was forced into prostitution at an early age and scared for her life, was subsequently charged with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in 2004. She was tried as an adult and then convicted and sentenced to life in prison, not eligible for parole until the age of 67.

But Brown’s case eventually become a topic of controversy, with a number of celebrities and justice reform advocates speaking out against her sentencing. Snoop Dogg, Lebron James, and more drew attention to her case, and she became the subject of a high-profile documentary.

A clemency hearing in 2017 received wide public attention, and then in 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam commuted her sentence. But Brown’s story is far from over: She travels the country and advocates on behalf of victims of sex trafficking. However, some in law enforcement maintain that Brown was far from a victim.

Cyntoia Brown Goes On Trial For The Murder Of Johnny Michael Allen

Johnny Michael Allen

YouTubeCyntoia Brown shot and killed Johnny Michael Allen on Aug. 6, 2004, claiming self-defense.

At her 2004 trial, Brown said that Allen had solicited her for sex at a Sonic in East Nashville, Tennessee, and taken her back to his house. Prosecutors said that Brown shot Allen in the head while he was asleep and stole his money, guns, and fled in his truck.

Prosecutors never argued that Allen had good intentions — rather, they admitted he did indeed pick her up for sex. Prosecutor Jeff Burks told a local FOX affiliate, “That was a fact from start to finish.”

Still, they alleged that Brown knew exactly what she was doing, and her motive was robbery.

“I think she did what she wanted to do, and unfortunately on this night what she wanted to do was kill him and take his stuff,” Burks said.

Brown maintained that she had committed the act in self-defense as she was “scared for her life” by Allen’s behavior.

She insisted that she took his money because she was afraid of returning empty-handed to her pimp, “Kut-Throat.” In the end, she was tried as an adult and convicted of murder and robbery. But her being tried as an adult at the age of just 16 has been seen by many as problematic.

Cyntoia Brown Is Set Free — Sparking Controversy

Cyntoia Brown Trial

EbonyCyntoia Brown during her initial trial.

Since then, a 2011 documentary about her case, a 2016 PBS series, as well as a U.S. Congressman and celebrities like Ashley Judd, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian West have used Brown’s case as an example of the failures of the American justice system in supporting and protecting children. Many have even asked for clemency for Brown, who, they posited, was a victim herself and did not deserve her punishment.

While imprisoned, Cyntoia Brown also made what the governor felt was a complete rehabilitation. She completed her GED and received a college degree from Lipscomb University.

Cyntoia Brown Foundation

JFAM FoundationAfter she was granted clemency, Cyntoia Brown started a foundation for young survivors of sex trafficking.

Furthermore, Bishop Joseph Walker III, a pastor at Nashville’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, reported that Brown “has become the face of an unfair system that historically dealt harshly with black and brown perpetrators of crime.”

Derri Smith, founder of the anti-sex-trafficking non-profit End Slavery Tennessee, said that “We know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute … because it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”

Evidently, Gov. Bill Haslam agreed and granted the now 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown clemency as one of his last acts in office.

“This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” Haslam said.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. 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.”

The Tennessee law surrounding the conviction of juveniles has changed since Brown’s case in such a way that legal experts claim were she tried today, Brown would not have received the same sentence.

“Our courts today would view her as a child sex slave… she would be viewed as a victim,” reported CNN.

Pastor Walker, looking ahead to Brown’s release, said at the time that she was welcome to work in his church once she was out.

“I learned that my life was — and is — not over,” Cyntoia Brown said. “I can create opportunities where I can actually help people,” and added to Gov. Haslam, “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

After being granted her freedom, Brown and her husband, Jaime Long, created a nonprofit, called the Foundation for Justice, Freedom, and Mercy.

“I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation,” Brown said in a 2019 CNN interview.

After this look at the story of Cyntoia Brown, read up on the Florida man who tried to barbecue child molesters. Then, discover the gruesome case of the 10-year-old Wisconsin girl who was charged with murder and tried as an adult.

Leah Silverman
Leah is the Assistant Editor for All That's Interesting. Her work has appeared in Town & Country, Women's Health, Esquire, and Publishers Weekly.