Cyntoia Brown, Teenage Sex Trafficking Victim Sentenced To Life For Murder, Granted Clemency

Published January 8, 2019
Updated June 11, 2020

Cyntoia Brown was prostituted as a teenager and convicted for a 2004 murder at just 16 years old. Now, she's been released and given a second chance at life.

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, forced into prostitution 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 has since become a topic of controversy. At her 2004 trial, Brown said that Allen had solicited her for sex at a Sonic in East Nashville, Tenn. 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. 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, “Cut 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 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.

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.”

A CBS report on the clemency decision for Cyntoia Brown.

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.

While imprisoned, Brown has made what the governor feels is a complete rehabilitation. She completed her GED and received a college degree from Lipscomb University. She also reportedly hopes to use her education to fight social injustice through her own nonprofit.

Pastor Walker said Brown is welcome to work in his church upon her release to parole supervision on August 7.

“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 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.