Cyntoia Brown, serving life for murder, asks Tennessee parole board for clemency: A look at her case

Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman who is currently serving a life sentence for a murder she committed when she was a 16-year-old prostitute, made her case for clemency on Wednesday.

Brown, who is now 30, appeared before a state board of parole on May 23 -- but the panel didn't leave the hearing with any clear-cut decision. According to The Tennessean, the six-member board was split three ways on what to do: deny the clemency request, ask the governor to reduce the sentence to time served or reduce her sentence to 25 years in prison.

It's now up to Gov. Bill Haslam to decide what to do regarding Brown.

Read on for a look at her case and what’s happened since she’s been behind bars.

She says she was afraid for her life

Brown was sentenced to life in prison after she admitted to fatally shooting a man in 2004, when she was just 16 years old. She said she shot Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, after he picked her up and took her back to his house. She said she thought she was in danger at the time, as she believed he was grabbing a weapon.

Prosecutors argued Brown killed Allen in order to rob him.

Brown was tried as an adult in 2006 and convicted of first-degree murder. She is slated to remain in prison for at least 51 years, meaning she’ll be at least 67 years old before she can be released.

This all started when she met a man called "Cut-throat" when she was 16 and a runaway. Brown said she began to live with the 24-year-old in motels and the pair did drugs, according to The Associated Press. She claims the man was abusive, frequently choking her and pulling guns on her.

“He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody [would] want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” she testified about how she became a prostitute.

Since she’s been in prison, Brown has earned her associates degree from Lipscomb University, WZTV-TV reported. She is also working on a bachelor's degree, according to the news station.

She’s gotten support from celebrities, advocacy groups

Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg have supported Brown. Kardashian West has also offered her legal team to help Brown with her case.

“The system has failed. It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life!” the reality TV star said in a tweet. “We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.”

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“Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” Rihanna said in an Instagram post. “To each of you responsible for this child’s sentence I hope to God you don’t have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already!”

More than a dozen national juvenile justice groups have signed an amicus brief petitioning for clemency, the Tennessean reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Wrongful Convictions of Youth, the Sentencing Project, the Juvenile Law Center and others have joined the legal brief, according to the newspaper.

“Cyntoia’s sentence is wholly disproportionate for a 16-year-old girl, and therefore unconstitutional,” Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, argued in a statement.

In 2012, after Brown had been sentenced, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not impose mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Brown’s sentence gives her an opportunity for parole -- but only after 51 years. Levick said that sentence leaves Brown “to die in prison.”

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“Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, most states have rolled back the harsh sentencing practices imposed on youth, offering both opportunities for resentencing and the opportunity for parole,” Riya Saha Shah, senior supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, said. “This Tennessee sentencing scheme is unduly harsh, foreclosing both any realistic opportunity for parole or any individualized consideration.”

Haslam, a Republican, has not granted any clemency cases in his tenure. He is in his final year of his term.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.