Interfaith Leaders Urge Clemency for Cyntoia Brown

Cyntoia Brown has been serving a life sentence for killing a man while trying to escape the horrors of child sex slavery. Photo by Tennessee Prison for Women

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Gov. Bill Haslam should grant Cyntoia Brown clemency, Davidson County-area faith leaders said recently at American Baptist College.

“I struggle to find a greater miscarriage of justice than what has occurred with Cyntoia Brown,” the Rev. Keith Caldwell, the NAACP Nashville branch president said Dec. 20.

Sold into prostitution, Brown, now 30, was convicted of killing a 43-year-old man.

She was “sentenced to life for surviving,” declared Brittany Paschall, speaking for Black Lives Matter–Nashville. “Black girls and women cannot wait.”

Haslam can grant clemency before his term ends. That’s 10 days before her 31st birthday. If he doesn’t, Paschall and Caldwell said their groups will petition incoming governor Bill Lee for Brown’s release. Lee’s inauguration is Jan. 19.

Brown, a victim of sex trafficking, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison for the 2004 murder of Johnny Allen, a real estate agent who solicited Brown for sex. She said she shot Allen out of fear for her life when she was 16. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Brown will be eligible for parole after 51 years of incarceration.

“As she saved her own life, she then was given a life sentence,” said Kelli X, minister of The Village Church in Madison. “Fifty one years to a 16-year-old girl — this is not justice, this is immoral.”

Black Lives Matter–Nashville issued a Dec. 10 statement calling on Haslam to grant executive clemency for Brown.

“We don’t know what happened in that room, but we know that an adult man should not have been in bed with a 16-year-old,” state Rep. Brenda Gilmore said. “And we’re never condoning violence, but we’re asking … the governor … please grant her a full pardon.”

The Rev. James Turner II, president of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship, said the negative imagery assigned to the black community for generations is being weaponized against Brown.

“We know this young lady was taken advantage of,” Turner said. “We know this speaks to a larger issue concerning juvenile justice. And … we want to urge … Gov. Haslam to definitely grant full clemency for sister Cyntoia Brown.”

Paschall, the Black Lives Matter spokesperson, said, “In so doing, we recognize that Cyntoia’s case testifies to a continued harm and injustice within our … criminal legal system. Thousands of people are affected by the same laws that are preventing our sister, Cyntoia, from being free.”

Black Lives Matter partnered with Highlander Research and Education Center, #MeToo and Color of Change to promote a week of action to help free Brown.

Brown’s case has national attention, with celebrities, organizations and politicians declaring support. As the end of Haslam’s term draws near, her story is again being heard. #FREECYNTOIABROWN is trending on social media amid a national conversation on criminal justice reform via the First Step Act.

“When I first heard of Cyntoia Brown’s case, I was appalled,” state Sen. Katrina Robinson said. “Adverse childhood events led Ms. Brown into a life of drugs, forced prostitution, and countless other illegal activities. It seems wrong to sentence a minor to what is essentially life in prison, for decisions … made under duress. While there is nothing our state can do to restore the near decade and a half she has spent in prison, granting her clemency would be a start.”

Tennessee’s Democratic congressmen favor Brown’s release.

“I hope and pray Gov. Haslam will commute Cyntoia Brown’s sentence,” U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville said. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis said Haslam should “give full and fair consideration to the case of Cyntoia Brown for potential clemency.”

While incarcerated, Brown earned a general education development certificate and an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree and mentors fellow inmates.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” The Village Church’s minister said paraphrasing Luke 12:48 in an apparent reference to Haslam. “And what does God require of us? That we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

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