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Cyntoia Brown Clemency Highlights Wider Push For Reforms

By Emma Cueto | January 13, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

Cyntoia Brown appears in court during a clemency hearing at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2018. (AP)


Fifteen years into a life sentence for murder — a murder she claims she committed in self-defense as a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking — Cyntoia Brown will walk out of prison in August thanks to a commuted sentence.

The decision by outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has thrilled Brown’s many supporters, from legal advocates to celebrities on Twitter to ordinary citizens who followed her legal challenges to the sentence. However, experts say that Brown’s victory underscores the fact that there are many others with similar cases that have not attracted the same attention, or achieved the same result.

“[Brown’s release] should be celebrated,” said Professor Cynthia Soohoo, director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law. “But … we do need to look at the systemic factors that led to her being tried as an adult and getting a life sentence.”

She added, “You shouldn’t need Rihanna to tweet about you in order to get justice.”

Brown was convicted in 2004 for killing Johnny Allen Mitchell, an adult man who she said had solicited her for sex and whose behavior after taking her back to his house frightened her, according to Brown. After shooting Mitchell, Brown stole money from his house to bring back to her pimp. A jury did not buy her self-defense argument and she received a life sentence, with no chance for parole for 51 years.

In a statement following the news that her sentence had been commuted, Brown thanked the governor, her legal team and others who had helped her enroll in educational programs in prison. “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” she said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

Gov. Haslam stressed in his statement regarding the commutation the steps Brown had taken towards rehabilitation since entering prison as a teenager, including earning her GED, getting an associate's degree, and working towards a bachelor's degree.

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

Before the commutation, Brown attracted widespread attention while appealing her sentence to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The case was covered in national media outlets and celebrities such as Rihanna, Ashley Judd and Kim Kardashian West tweeted about the case.

However, Cyntoia Brown is far from the only young person given a lengthy sentence, or the only alleged trafficking victim convicted of a crime related to their trafficking. And for those without national attention and celebrity backers, a pardon or commutation is much less likely.

Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, which submitted a brief on Brown’s behalf in her federal appellate case, told Law360 that she was “thrilled” to hear about the commutation and considered it a “great outcome” for Brown — but noted that many others like Brown are still behind bars.

“We celebrate her release but we certainly lament that there are thousands of individuals across the country who received very lengthy sentences as children,” she said. “They may be every bit as much an appropriate candidate for release.”

Over the past 15 years, the Supreme Court has put new protections in place for juvenile offenders, ruling that it was unconstitutional to execute people for crimes committed while under the age of 18 or to sentence such offenders to life without parole. However, in many states, juveniles tried as adults still can and do receive lengthy sentences, Levick said.

It’s something that Juvenile Law Center is hoping to change, along with the tendency to try juvenile offenders as adults. Looking at Brown’s case, Levick said, she sees trends that affect many other teenage offenders.

Like Brown, many if not most children who commit violent crimes have experienced some form of abuse or trauma, Levick said. And like Brown, many face steep penalties that are not developmentally appropriate and don’t offer these young offenders a second chance, Levick added.

“Her case, as a child who was tried in the adult criminal justice system, who was sentenced to a virtual life without parole sentence, illustrates and exemplifies what is wrong without how our justice system treats children who commit crimes,” Levick said.

The case also highlights the ways in which trafficking victims in particular are treated in the criminal justice system, according to Soohoo, who works on issues related to international women’s human rights, including sex trafficking.

“I think [Brown’s case] reflects an underlying issue in terms of the way that victims of trafficking into prostitution are treated,” she said.

Part of the issue, she noted, is a disconnect between laws meant to protect young people forced into sex work and the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who deal with individual trafficking victims.

Prosecutors can sometimes look past laws on the books holding that people under 18 who are involved in sex work should be viewed as victims of trafficking or sexually exploited youth, according to Soohoo. Other laws can be used as an affirmative defense in a criminal case but don’t shield victims from criminal charges, she said.

Most of these cases don’t involve murder charges — trafficking victims are far more likely to be prosecuted for prostitution, related offenses such as loitering, or drug crimes. However, Soohoo said, in her view, the principle should remain the same, regardless of the offense.

The issue has obvious racial implications as well, Soohoo added. “[Girls of color] are disproportionately likely to be sexualized and more likely to be treated as adults,” she said. Brown, who is black, was part of that pattern, she added.

In Tennessee, as Brown prepares for release, lawmakers are gearing up to introduce criminal justice reforms, including reforms that might have given Brown a different outcome from the beginning, before she spent 15 years behind bars.

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, who advocated for Brown’s release, told Law360 she was “elated” by the governor’s decision and that she has several bills that she plans to introduce that would have made a difference in the Brown case.

One such measure would make clear that, if a minor is the victim of sex trafficking or sexual abuse, the use of force should be presumed to be self-defense, according to Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat.

“I think [this case] shows a need for reform, and I think the general assembly has a will to do that now — especially since this case has received such visibility,” she said.

Reform efforts, however, will go not through Haslam, who will be leaving office on Jan. 19th, but through Republican governor-elect Bill Lee.

In response to a request for comment, Lee said in a statement, “I respect Governor Haslam’s decision in this complex case. It is my hope that positive dialogue will come from this decision as our state moves forward.”

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.

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