What Can We Learn from Cyntoia Brown’s Story?

Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency by the governor of Tennessee and will be released on August 7, after serving 15 years of a life sentence for murder.

Who is Cyntoia Brown and why does her story matter?

The simple version of her story is that she was an abused child who was trafficked for sex, she ended up killing a man who paid for sex with her, and she was unjustly sentenced to life in prison.

It sounds horrific, and it is a tragic story, but is her story really that simple? What should we learn from Cyntoia’s story and will any changes result?

What is Cyntoia Brown’s Story?

Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 after she shot and killed a 43-year-old man who had paid her for sex.

She was 16 at the time.

Since her sentencing, a number of celebrities have advocated her release including:

  • Rihanna;
  • LeBron James;
  • Snoop Dogg;
  • Cara Delevingne; and
  • Kim Kardashian West.

Stories about her case and calls for her release flooded social media sites, a PBS documentary was made about her, and her case received increasing media attention culminating in the governor’s decision to grant clemency.

Her case is complex – prosecutors and a jury decided that she committed a murder, and yet she has received national media attention with so many celebrities and others calling for her release. Why?

We can separate the facts of her case into three categories – why she was convicted of murder, her defense to the murder charges, and the mitigating circumstances that likely led to the killing.

Why was Cyntoia Convicted of Murder?

The facts presented by law enforcement and prosecutors were pretty straightforward:

  • She met a 43-year-old man at a Sonic drive-in;
  • She agreed to have sex with him for $150;
  • She lied to him about her age;
  • She went to his home with him;
  • She shot him in the back of the head and killed him; and
  • She stole his money and vehicle.

Looking at the facts – what happened on the evening that she shot and killed the man – it looks like murder, and the jurors at her trial agreed.

There must be more to the story?

What was Cyntoia’s Defense to Murder?

Note that, “I was a teenager who was trafficked for sex by a violent pimp” was not her defense at trial. It was not her defense because it’s not a defense to murder, although it is certainly powerful mitigation in my mind.

Her defense was self-defense – she says that:

  • The man who paid her for sex told her that he was a former Army sharpshooter;
  • After eating dinner and watching TV with him, she got into bed with him;
  • He grabbed her “real hard” between her legs; and
  • He reached to the side of the bed.

Thinking that maybe he was reaching for a gun, she then shot and killed him with a .40 caliber handgun that she just happened to have handy. In bed, as she is about to have sex.

The problem with the legal defense is that it is not believable. It’s not just that it doesn’t make sense logically, but the evidence also did not match her story.

The evidence presented at trial indicated that the man was asleep when Cyntoia shot and killed him:

  • The gunshot wound was to the back of his head;
  • His hands were underneath his body and partially interlocked; and
  • She took his wallets, guns, and car when she left.

The evidence paints a picture of a girl who planned a robbery using sex as bait…

So, why all the commotion? There must be still more to the story…

It’s not About Innocence, It’s About Mitigation that was Ignored

Why should she be released?

  • She was 16 at the time of the murder and yet she was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. At 16 years old, she had very little life experience and the experience that she had from birth to 16 years old had doomed her to a life of addiction, prostitution, and prison. She was not a lost cause to be thrown away
  • She was a victim of sex trafficking by a violent pimp named “Kut Throat.” She reported that she was forced to have sex, sometimes at gunpoint. She was beaten, raped, choked, and her family was threatened. Before the murder, she was probably told to go out and bring back money or else…
  • Her mother was an alcoholic and she was placed for adoption at two years old;
  • She suffered from multiple emotional and mental illnesses and likely was born with fetal alcohol syndrome because her mother drank while she was pregnant; and
  • Throughout her school years – as a child – she struggled with adapting to school and society, abused drugs and alcohol, and was treated with psychotropic medications, until she ran away from her adoptive parents’ home and ended up living with Kut Throat who then prostituted her for coke money.

Consider this. What if we began this conversation by saying, there is a 43-year-old man who is going to pay a 16-year-old child to have sex with him? He is going to pick her up at a Sonic drive-in and take her home. How many of you would say, or think, the 43-year-old should be shot?

There is a huge difference in how most people would react to this story if we were talking about a 40-year-old prostitute as opposed to a 16-year-old child who is legally incapable of consenting to sex because she is too young.

Is this a legal defense to murder? No, it’s not.

But it’s a very long list of reasons not to put her in prison for the rest of her life.

What’s the Lesson that Will Most Likely Be Ignored?

What should we learn from Cyntoia’s story?

Not that it’s okay to murder men who pay for sex. Or that a child whose tragic circumstances led her down a tragic path should be excused for murder.

We should learn to treat human beings with compassion based on their circumstances.

We should learn that sex trafficking is a real thing in the United States of America, that children are suffering in the sex trade, and that more can be done to prevent it.

We should realize that everyone – not just this one person whose life story and murder trial made national headlines – has a story and a reason they ended up in the place where the criminal justice system found them.

We should learn that children are not adults – there are no “bad kids.” There are kids who find themselves in terrible circumstances through no fault of their own, who need help – not punishment or permanent separation from society.

Should Cyntoia be released from prison? Based on the facts of the case, her background, the length of time she has already served in prison, and the rehabilitation that she has reportedly embraced, absolutely. A life sentence for a 16-year-old survivor of horrific abuse is not justice – it was wrong from the beginning.

That’s what Cyntoia’s case is about – it’s not a question of whether she was guilty or not guilty. It’s a matter of why she was thrown away and sentenced to a lifetime in prison instead of being offered a lifeline and the opportunity to grow up away from the influence of pimps and drug dealers.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Myrtle Beach, Columbia, and Lexington, SC

Lacey Thompson is a criminal defense attorney with offices in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in SC, or if you believe you are under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or send an email today to talk with a SC criminal defense lawyer.

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One Response to “What Can We Learn from Cyntoia Brown’s Story?

  • Would this post be different if it happened in South Carolina where the age of consent is 16?

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