This week, the case of a woman named Cyntoia Brown went viral on social media, even though she has already been in jail for more than ten years.
Brown is serving a life sentence for the murder of a Nashville man in 2004. According to Brown, after a childhood marked by abuse and drugs, she was raped and forced into prostitution by a pimp, and ended up killing one of her clients out of self defense when she was just 16 years old. Despite her youth, she was tried as an adult and given a life sentence.
The details of her crime and trial — including the fact that the man who had paid for sex with her was 43 years old, have started circulating again, catching the attention of A-list celebrities and spawning the viral hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. However, even before the renewed interest, her trial inspired a documentary and was a factor in a major change in how the state of Tennessee deals with child prostitution cases.
How a years-old case ignited new interest
Though it’s unclear why, specifically, Brown’s story came back into the spotlight, a text post describing Brown’s history and trial appeared to pick up serious steam when it was shared by singer Rihanna on Instagram.
“Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named “cut-throat.” After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43 year old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him,” the post reads.
“Your (sic) arrested as (sic) result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison,” it continues. “This is the story of Cyntoia Brown. She will be eligible for parole when she is 69 years old.”
“Something his horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life,” Rihanna wrote in her Instagram caption.
The same post was later shared by Kim Kardashian, Cara Delevigne, and other celebrities, journalists and activists, who questioned why an underage girl involved in prostitution was given such a harsh sentence.
The reemergence of her story has inspired several petitions asking for a retrial in the case.
The story behind the posts
According to years of local media reports, a 2011 documentary about her case and court documents detailing Brown’s own testimony and that of a juvenile psychiatrist, Brown suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, grew up in an abusive home and had run away from her adoptive parents’ house prior to becoming involved in prostitution in Nashville.
“She was staying with different people and using drugs and alcohol,” a 2014 petition for appeal reads. She then met a 24-year-old named “Cut Throat” who, according to the petition, eventually began physically and sexually abusing her and forced her into prostitution.
On August 7, 2004, Brown testified she was solicited for sex by 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allan, who picked her up near a Sonic parking lot and drove her back to his house. There, she testified, she saw a gun cabinet in Allan’s room. She said she resisted his advances until he appeared to reach under the bed. Brown said she thought he was “gonna get a gun or is gonna do something to me.” She then said she took a gun out of her purse and shot Allan.
During her trial, the prosecution argued that the motive for the killing was not self-defense, as Brown claimed, but rather robbery, since Brown took Allan’s wallet after she shot him. She was tried as an adult and convicted of first degree murder, first degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. The convictions carried concurrent life sentences and eight additional years.
Brown’s life sentence caught criticism in Tennessee, and in 2012, a US Supreme Court ruling offered her advocates new hope. The Supreme Court decision banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles, stating it was unconstitutional. However, Brown’s conviction does carry the possibility of parole — when Brown is 69 years old. Still, her advocates are hoping the change, and continued interest in her story, will inspire a change in Tennessee law.