Questioned by a Black Lives Matter activist during a recent speaking engagement, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced that his office is considering offering clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a sex trafficking victim currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
Tennessee’s outgoing governor gave a speech on Monday at the Nashville Public Library on the importance of education. During the question-and-answer part of the event, Justin Lang, described as “a higher-education professional and member of Black Lives Matter Nashville,” stepped up to the mic and asked the governor about Cyntoia Brown’s plight, as reported by Rolling Stone:
Since we’re here talking about education, I wanted to ask a question about one of your Tennessee students and a graduate of Lipscomb University, Cyntoia Brown.
As a victim of sex trafficking and assault, this is an unjust sentence in the first place,” Lang said. Under Tennessee law, all minors engaged in sex work are legally considered victims of sex trafficking. She has not been treated as a victim of trafficking and not given the justice she deserves.
The Supreme Court’s decision that Cyntoia must serve 51 years before she can be considered for parole is a human rights issue,” Lang said. “And so I ask you, what really, functionally, is the difference between life without parole—which is no longer constitutional as the United States Supreme Court declared for minors, for any crime—and ‘you might get parole after 51 years,’ for a victim of sex trafficking?”
And so I ask why has Cyntoia Brown been incarcerated for 14 years for enduring harm? And so I say Governor Haslam, you have the power and ability to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, and so I ask when will you grant her clemency, I ask what will be your legacy as you leave office, and how will you answer to this human rights violation that the state of Tennessee is committing by keeping her incarcerated?
Haslam responded by thanking Lang for his question and revealed that his office has been talking to the people involved in Brown’s tragic story and that she is one of the cases that his office is considering for clemency before his term expires on Jan. 19, 2019.
“We’re reviewing a lot of cases,” said the governor, “and while Cyntoia’s case has gotten a lot of publicity, I don’t think you want us to treat hers any different than a whole lot of cases that I think people want us to review.”
Apparently unmoved by the governor’s equivocation, the audience began chanting: “What do we want? Clemency! When do we want it? Now!” and “No justice, no peace!”
On Aug. 6, 2004, when she was 16, Brown was picked up by 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen, who planned on paying Brown for sex. Paranoid from drugs and abuse, Brown reportedly became convinced that Allen was going to kill her. She fired one bullet into Allen’s chest, drove his car to a Wal-Mart parking lot and walked back to her hotel to meet “Cut-Throat,” a pimp who been providing her with drugs while abusing her physically and emotionally, allegedly holding her at gunpoint on a nightly basis.
Brown was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to serve a prison term of 51 years to life. Since being incarcerated, Brown has gone on to graduate from high school and college while repeatedly fighting for her release.
She was granted a clemency hearing earlier this year before the six-member Tennessee Board of Parole, citing a recent Supreme Court Decision that banned life sentences for juveniles. The board eventually denied her request for clemency after a split vote. On Dec. 6, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Brown must serve 51 years before she is eligible for parole.
If he so chooses, Haslam can use his powers of executive clemency to pardon Brown, which is a formal statement of forgiveness but does not clear her record, or he could choose to commute her sentence to a shorter term, including time served.