America has a history of blaming victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse as the victim’s own wrong doing and it has gotten us nowhere. There is a tendency to think that these young women are “choosing” to be sex workers; they are “choosing” to give up the money they make to dangerous men; and even under Tennessee law- they are “choosing” to give up their right to self defence, as they are engaged in an “unlawful activity”. A young woman of color in America can still get more prison time for being a sex worker and defending herself against the imminent threat of violence than a man who is found guilty for the intent to rape an intoxicated woman. The Cyntoia Brown case represents how the criminal justice system in America is an institution that is influenced by classism and prejudice and needs reforming. It took the Governor of Tennessee’s last term in office in 2019 to finally realize that Brown deserves some mercy.
On the evening of August 7, 2004, police officers from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department found the body of Johnny Allen in a bedroom of his home, nude, and face down. An autopsy revealed that he had been shot in the back of the head. When police picked Brown up a day later at a nearby hotel, she was staying with a man named “Cut Throat”, who was allegedly her pimp. According to court documents, she met “Cut” in July after she ran away from her adopted parents’ home. He enticed her to stay in a hotel with him by being nice to her and giving her drugs. But then he began verbally and physically abusing her, sexually assaulting her, and forcing her into prostitution, all while she was only 16. Brown said that one time he even almost killed her by choking her. She was continuously scared of him.
On the day of Johnny Allen’s death, Brown left the hotel alone, apparently high on cocaine, as she walked to a nearby Sonic. Allen stopped his truck and asked her if she needed a ride. Brown got in, they parked at Sonic and Allen solicited her for sex. When they got to Allen’s home, he continuously bragged about his gun collection and Brown got scared. She described him as acting “weird”, and when they were in bed together she thought he was reaching for a gun under the bed. She quickly reacted by reaching into her purse, pulled out a gun Cut gave her and fired it one time. She was scared about going back to Cut without any money, so she took some of Allen’s guns and drove his truck back to the hotel they were staying at. Brown ended up turning herself in the next day. Even though she was arrested when she was 16, she went to trial when she was 18 and was tried as an adult. She was found guilty of murder and received 51 years to life in prison.
According to the documentary about Cyntoia Brown there is evidence that suggests Brown’s mother drank heavily while pregnant, which can lead to brain damage, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Although she had an adopted family, she ran away from home and ended up staying with different people in Nashville using drugs and alcohol. Despite the fact that Brown may have been suffering from FAS, her mental instability didn’t play a part in her sentencing. Her lawyers described her as “brilliant”, but “her personality was all over the place. You never knew who you were going to be talking to from time-to-time”. Nevertheless, Brown’s lawyers didn’t use the mental health defense because they didn’t have the “objective evidence to go with it such as a brain scan”, the lack of which can make juries hesitant about giving weight to a psychological testimony.
Brown’s story hardly sounds like she was in control of any situation she was put in from the moment she was born. Like many other young women who become victims of sex trafficking, she was born into a world of instability and has been paying the price for it ever since. The criminal justice system doesn’t take into account the full spectrum of someone’s life before they are sentenced, which can result in disproportionate prison sentences for women, people of color, and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It took celebrities like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, a complete documentary and public outrage for the Governor to review a clemency application for Brown. The bottom line is: Brown’s sentencing was too harsh. Even though Brown will be let out later this year, there are many more victims of sex trafficking who are disproportionately imprisoned. Brown’s case is one step further for the advocacy and change that is needed for America’s criminal justice system.
By Ryan Nickerson
Cyntoia Brown (Courtesy: Dan Birman)