Cyntoia Brown appears in court during her clemency hearing at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tenn.
Photo: Lacy Atkins (The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

The case of Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at age 16, has now dragged Tennessee sentencing laws into the spotlight, with a federal appeals court considering whether to consult the Tennessee Supreme Court for clarification about the state laws.

As WBIR-TV notes, this year Brown’s attorneys appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, insisting that Brown’s life sentence was unconstitutional, especially given the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling noting that juvenile life sentences without parole are cruel and unusual in most cases.

Brown, who is now 30, has been behind bars since 2004 after being convicted in the shooting death of 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen. Allen had picked Brown up at a Nashville, Tenn., fast-food restaurant and taken her to his home.

While prosecutors argued that it was a murder in cold blood, after which she robbed Allen and fled with his car, supporters of Brown have long argued that she was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life. The fact that Brown also suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome was also a debating point, as advocates and attorneys argued that she did not have the mental state necessary to be held responsible for premeditated murder.

Now, at this point, an apparent contradiction in Tennessee law has brought state sentencing laws under scrutiny.

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Attorneys representing the state in the case have argued that the 2012 SCOTUS ruling does not apply to Brown because she’s not really serving a life sentence. Those attorneys emphasize parts of Tennessee law that basically suggest that Brown could be eligible for release after serving 51 years.

The three-judge panel in Cincinnati looking over the case seemingly agreed that if Brown was, in fact, serving a 51-year sentence, the 2012 ruling may not apply to her.

However, Brown’s attorneys have countered that claim, pointing out that another section of the law notes that “there shall be no release eligibility” for those convicted of first-degree murder, like Brown.

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This is what gave the appeals judges pause as they made note of the contradiction. The judges indicated that they may reach out to the Tennessee Supreme Court for further clarification before proceeding. That being said, the judges didn’t address the arguments about Brown’s fetal alcohol syndrome.

The appeal is but one of multiple ways that Brown’s attorneys are pushing for her release. Brown has also asked Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency, but the state parole board made conflicting recommendations to the governor back in May.