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The Case of Cyntoia Brown: Is it Fair to Give a Life Sentence at Age 16?

Cyntoia Brown is currently 14 years into a life sentence for murder – a sentence the Tennessee jury gave her in 2004 at just 16 years old. According to Brown, the murder she committed was in self-defense. Her case states that she was a rape victim forced into prostitution. At age 16, she killed a client (a 43-year-old man) in self-defense. Although Brown’s case is old, it’s gone viral on social media with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Here’s a look at her case.

About the Cyntoia Brown Case

According to Brown’s defense lawyers during her murder trial, a man by the name of “Kut Throat” raped, abused, and forced Brown into prostitution at age 16. Brown was a child runaway at the time. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows her situation is sadly not unique: police arrest more than 1,000 children for prostitution every year. Brown openly admitted to killing one of her clients, a real estate agent by the name of Johnny Allen, in self-defense. She said she feared for her life and thought he was going to kill her.

Brown stated during her case that at the time of the murder, she’d been on drugs for weeks and other men had repeatedly raped her. Allen’s house contained several guns. Brown stated she thought Allen would shoot her, so she took one of the guns and shot and killed Allen. Nashville police arrested Brown for the murder. Her juvenile forensic psychiatrist deemed her competent, so the courts tried her as an adult. Six years later, a jury convicted her of first-degree murder. Her sentence was 51 years to life, making her eligible for parole at age 69.

A documentary currently exists which explains Cyntoia Brown murder case, one that highlights just how common violence is among youth. This documentary might have helped spark the renewed interest in her case, one that skyrocketed after singer Rihanna shared Brown’s story on Instagram. Rihanna’s caption on the photo stated that something is “horribly wrong when the system enables rapists and throws victims away for life.” In 2012, Nashville defense attorney Charles Bone joined Brown’s case and argued for a new trial.

Tennessee and Life Sentences for Minors

The Brown case has resulted in a public outcry of how the justice system treats minors who commit crimes – especially minors forced into prostitution. People for #FreeCyntoiaBrown have pointed out that if Brown’s case had happened today, the courts would have tried her as a victim of sex-trafficking, not as a prostitute. They state that Brown was the true victim, and the courts should reconsider her case based on the “safe harbor law” of 2016 that prevents children under 18 from prosecution for prostitution.

The laws have been changing to provide more leniency and justice for minors in the criminal system, especially for minors who are victims themselves. Unfortunately for Brown and others in similar situations, the changes have come too slowly. Brown, now 30 years old, just had a clemency hearing at which she pled for mercy: The Tennessee Board of Parole split its decision. Brown’s case will continue, but she is just one of many minors currently serving time in Tennessee and around the country, perhaps unfairly.

How a Qualified Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help

A qualified criminal defense lawyer can make all the difference in cases involving minors. Young people on trial for serious violent crimes absolutely need the strongest, most aggressive, and reliable legal representation possible. They need attorneys who are passionate advocates for their rights and the rights of all minors accused of serious crimes. If facing life imprisonment or other serious consequences in a criminal trial, retain a top attorney. Your life is on the line. The lawyer you choose can make or break the outcome of your case.