There is no arguing that Cyntoia Denise Brown was a child when she killed her final John, a 43-year old man named Johnny Allen. She has never denied she shot Mr. Allen. There is also no dispute that Cyntoia was a troubled and traumatized young girl who has been trafficked and victimized by men for much of her young life. Fortunately, this story ends well.
Cyntoia was born to a mother, just 16 at the time, who drank alcohol throughout her pregnancy and who smoked crack cocaine for the last month of her pregnancy. The father is not known. Her mother’s family has a history of mental illness, including multiple suicides.
Not long after Cyntoia’s mother gave birth, she went to jail and Cyntoia was adopted by the Brown family.
Cyntoia’s early life was traumatic. She was shuttled between her biological family and her adoptive home. Her biological mother was in and out of jail for drug and prostitution related crimes, and her grandmother was battling with her own demons stemming from her own kidnap and rape and a history of domestic violence.
Fast-forward to age 16. Cyntoia is under the supervision of juvenile authorities. This young girl, who was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and addicted to crack, who had little contact with her biological mother and no knowledge of her father, has now run away. She began “dating” a man nearly ten years her senior whose nickname was “Cut-Throat.” This man had choked her to the point of passing out and had raped her. As is typical in child-trafficking or child prostitution, the pimp starts out as a boyfriend. He will coerce the teenager into leaving home, and then in quick succession the relationship becomes abusive. In truth, this particular man was a predator from the outset. The boyfriend becomes the pimp and he turns the young person out into the streets to make money through prostitution under the threat of violence or death. Based on evidence gathered in the wake of her arrest, law enforcement was able to confirm that Cut-Throat was prostituting Cyntoia, that they were homeless, and that she was the primary source of their income. Both were involved in heavy drug use.
On the evening of August 6, 2004, Johnny Allen had been observed driving around an area of East Tennessee with the lights in his vehicle off. This is typical behavior for a man looking for a hook up. The reality is that this 43-year old man was also predator. He picked up 16-year old Cyntoia and agreed to pay her $150 for sex. He took her to his home, they ate take-out, and he showed her his guns. Cyntoia took a shower and got in bed with Mr. Allen. But at some point Cyntoia claims she became scared and she shot him. She took $172 and two guns and drove off in his truck. Two days later, the police found her with Cut-Throat at a motel. She was arrested and charged with first degree murder, first degree felony murder and aggravated robbery.
From the outset, Cyntoia accepted responsibility for her crimes. She has never denied killing Johnny Allen. In fact, it was Cyntoia who called 911 the next day to anonymously report the shooting. When the police showed up to arrest her, she claimed full responsibility. She claimed, however, that she did so in self defense because she was scared that he was going to do something to her and because of the way men had treated her all her life. Evidence suggests, too, that Cyntoia had been using cocaine heavily in the weeks leading up to the shooting.
Cyntoia was initially charged as a juvenile, but her case was transferred to adult court. During the five-day trial that followed, none of the mental illness, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, nor the trauma of being sex-trafficked or being abused for most of her short life were introduced in evidence. A jury convicted Cyntoia on all counts and she was sentenced to life in prison.
What is troubling about Cyntoia’s story is the systemic failures and the numerous opportunities there were to intervene and prevent not only a senseless murder but also the destruction of a young woman’s life. The truth is that the Tennessee juvenile justice system failed because no one picked up on the trail of clues. All of the risk factors and behavioral signs were present and the foundation for Cyntoia to become a trafficked person was there as well. It appears that everyone missed the clues.
After her trial and numerous appeals and post-conviction proceedings, a clearer picture began to emerge about exactly who Cyntoia was and how truly damaged she was. Although she tested in the 90th percentile on IQ tests, general intelligence has little bearing on developmental and mental health issues. She obviously suffered a series of traumas in her short life and doctors who have examined her since her trial found she suffered from a particularly advanced form of FASD that severely impaired her development. The disorder and her life experience had a profound effect on her and caused her to conflate reality, exhibit inappropriate reactions to situations, and have impulse control issues. Medical experts have testified that at the time of the shooting Cyntoia likely had the mental capacity and reasoning of a 10-year old. None of these issues have ever been put before a jury.
Cyntoia’s case also raises troubling legal issues. Her lawyers have argued that her life sentence is unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without parole. The Tennessee courts have held that “life in prison” does not mean life without parole under Tennessee law and therefore Cyntoia will be eligible for release on parole after 51 years.
Cyntoia also claims that her original trial counsel was incompetent and failed to properly investigate her history and present the true story to the jury. In addition, her original lawyer erroneously advised her she should not testify because testimony from her juvenile court hearing would be used to impeach her. But the law prevents juvenile proceedings from being used to impeach a defendant transferred to adult court.
To the State’s credit, six years after her conviction, Tennessee began passing some of the strongest anti-trafficking laws in the nation. In 2004, when Cyntoia was being forced to be a prostitute by a man nearly 10 years her senior, neither the pimp nor the Johns were typically charged with serious crimes. Today, these are human trafficking crimes and Tennessee has elevated these to Class B and Class A felonies. None of these laws would have exempted Cyntoia from being charged, but if her trial were held today, the fact that she was being forced to commit prostitution would be a relevant consideration. And though it would not bear on her culpability for the horrible crime she admits she committed, it clearly would be a consideration in mitigation of sentence and it would certainly be a factor to consider in terms of prosecuting Cyntoia as a juvenile. Had she been prosecuted as a juvenile, Cyntoia would have served just a few years in juvenile detention.
Also missing from the narrative in Cyntoia’s case is the notion that Mr. Allen, although a victim himself, was likely a pedophile. It is difficult to look at 16-year old Cyntoia and not see a young girl. Yet, he picked her up and offered to pay her for sex. During her trial it was brought to light that Mr. Allen had raped another young woman. And, in the years since the trial, two waitresses, who were as young as 17 at the time, have come forward and said he was known to flirt and try to invite them out or to his home.
As I read through the court documents and transcripts and took the time to watch documentaries about Cyntoia’s case, it became clear to me that the State has absolutely refused to accept that she is also a victim. She was a child forced into prostitution under threat of physical harm. She was picked up by a man in his 40’s for sex. Combined with the fact that the courts who have reviewed the case have clearly found that she was raped and abused for years and was suffering from FASD, which would have impaired her judgement, it seems clear to me that justice has not been served in this case. It also appears that her attorneys left a lot on the table in terms of providing a proper defense at trial. Still, the State is sticking to its guns, like a stubborn child unwilling to admit they should back off or reconsider their stance in Cyntoia’s case.
In my opinion it is the long history of racism and misogyny in this country that is at the root of the problem in Cyntoia’s case. It led to her being tried as an adult and to her treatment for the past 15 years. Time and time again, the State and everyone who has come in contact with her has failed her. They could have chosen to see her for what she was, an intelligent but broken young girl who was diagnosed as having the reasoning abilities of a 10-year-old at the time of the murder. Instead, the courts, prosecutors and the media painted her as an adult, a prostitute and a drug user. This country and the courts have an established history of charging minors who are minorities as adults and imposing harsher sentences on them. It is not without reason to say this has happened in this case.
Fortunately, there is still hope for Cyntoia. On Monday, January 7, just a few days before leaving office, Tennessee Governor Haslam granted Cyntoia clemency. More than 600,000 people had signed a petition and thousands of people, include elected officials, demonstrated recently, all demanding that Cyntoia be released. Celebrities also raised their voices. Thank goodness, Governor Haslam saw fit to temper this tragedy with mercy and give Cyntoia a second chance at life. Now 30 years old, after 15 years in prison, Cyntoia will be released on parole later this year. It is an appropriate ending to a tragic story.