Cyntoia Brown appears in court during her clemency hearing at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tennessee, May 23, 2018. Lacy Atkins / AP
Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman who was convicted as a teenager for killing a man while she said she was a sex trafficking victim, was granted clemency, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday.
Brown was granted a full commutation to parole. She will be eligible for release Aug. 7 after serving 15 years in prison and will remain on parole for 10 years.
Haslam said the decision comes after careful consideration of “what is a tragic and complex case.”
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said in a statement. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
Brown thanked the governor and her supporters in a statement released Monday by her attorneys.
“Thank you, Governor Haslam, for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance,” Brown said. “I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.”
Brown said she is grateful for the support, prayers, and encouragement she has received, including from Tennessee Department of Corrections officials.
Her case became a national rallying point for criminal justice reform and awareness about the toll of human trafficking. Several dozen supporters of Brown attended a rally Saturday in Nashville, pleading for her clemency from Haslam, who leaves office Jan. 19.
Brown, now 30, was tried as an adult in 2006 and imprisoned in Tennessee following her trial and life sentence for the death of Johnny Mitchell Allen, who paid Brown for sex. She was also convicted of aggravated robbery.
Last month, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Brown must serve51 years in jail before she is eligible for release. The ruling sparked outrage online among Brown’s supporters, including many celebrities who have called for her release.
More than half a million people have signed petitions for Brown’s freedom online and a slew of celebrities including LeBron James, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, Meek Mill and Amy Schumer, have rallied for her release on social media with the hashtag #freecyntoiabrown. Rihanna was among the first celebrities to weigh in on Brown’s case in a November 2017 Instagram post that helped highlight the need for criminal justice reform.
Her case inspired a 2011 documentary titled “Me Facing Life: The Cyntoia Brown Story,” that thrust her into the spotlight.
While in prison, Brown has earned a GED and an associate degree in 2015 through the Lipscomb Initiative for Education Program with a 4.0 GPA, Haslam said. Brown said she is scheduled to earn her bachelor’s degree in May.
Brown said Monday she is committed to live the rest of her life helping others, especially young people.
“My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been,” she said.
A statement from the office of Governor Haslam, a Republican, said Ms. Brown would be released to supervised parole on Aug. 7, 2019, after serving 15 years in prison.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Mr. Haslam said in the statement. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” he said. “So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”
Ms. Brown’s mother, who abused drugs and alcohol, placed her for adoption as a child, according to court documents. At 16, Ms. Brown ran away from her adoptive family and started to live in a motel with a pimp who raped her and forced her to become a prostitute.
After they got into bed, Ms. Brown said she thought he was reaching for a gun to kill her. She later shot him in his sleep with a handgun from her purse, took money and two guns, and fled, documents say.
Ms. Brown, tried as an adult, was convicted by a Davidson County jury in 2006 of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison and would not have been eligible for parole consideration until 2055.
Governor Haslam said in his statement that Ms. Brown earned her high school equivalency diploma and an associate degree with a 4.0 GPA while imprisoned. She is continuing her education, the statement said, and is expected to earn a bachelor’s degree in May.
“Numerous Department of Correction employees and volunteers attest to her extraordinary personal transformation while incarcerated, which will allow her to be a positive influence on the community upon release,” the governor said.
In a statement released by her lawyers, Ms. Brown thanked the governor “for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.”
She also thanked officials in the Department of Corrections who helped her get an education and “saw something in me worth salvaging.”