The tragic life of Cyntoia Brown is about to take a positive turn.
The 31-year-old, who has spent nearly half of her life behind bars, will be released from a Tennessee prison on Wednesday. Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency eight months ago after her case went viral and she received online support from a number of celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna.
Brown was tried as an adult at age 16, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 43-year-old white man who she said solicited her for sex.
After her arrest in 2004, she testified that a pimp known as “Kut Throat” forced her into prostitution, which ultimately led to the fatal encounter with Nashville real estate agent, Johnny Allen.
Here are a 7 facts you need to know about Cyntoia Brown including how she landed in prison, details around her early release, and the future holds for her.
She refuses to feel sorry for herself
Brown has put in the work to change the trajectory of her life while incarcerated. In 2015, she earned an associate degree from Lipscomb University, private Christian college in Tennessee and earlier this year, she received a bachelor’s degree from the Tennessee Prison for Women. She’s also working with the Juvenile Justice System in Tennessee to counsel at-risk young people.
“She is light years today, as a woman, different from the traumatized 16-year-old that she was,” Derri Smith, founder of the nonprofit End Slavery Tennessee, told CNN before Brown was granted her undergraduate diploma.
“She’s mentoring … troubled youth, working on her college degree, she is planning a nonprofit so she can help other people.”
She’s inspiring artists to tell her story
Back in 2011, filmmaker Daniel Birman told Cyntoia Brown’s story in the documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which aired on PBS‘ Independent Lens.
Now, Birman is back to depict the story that updates her life in a new project for Netflix. The upcoming documentary, which has yet to be named, will include details around her release, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
She may be out, but others still need help
A coalition of advocacy groups including Black Lives Matter and Color of Change created the FreeCyntoiaBrown.org website. Now that her release is imminent, they want the public to know the struggle is no where near over.
Members of the public who’ve supported Brown over the years by writing to her and donating funds can continue those efforts by helping other Black women who are “unjustly imprisoned survivors.”
The coalition calls for the public to sign a petition to free victims of gender violence in New York State. Brown’s supporters also can sign a pledge on the coalition’s homepage to press local district attorneys to decline to prosecute these survivors.
She’s received love from A-list celebs
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, Snoop Dogg, Viola Davis and LeBron James are among the members of the red-carpet crowd who have publicly pushed for Brown to be freed, using #FreeCyntoiaBrown on social media.
Rihanna’s 2017 calls have perhaps been the most strident.
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did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?? cause….. Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child’s sentence I hope to God you don’t have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already! #FREECYNTOIABROWN #HowManyMore
“After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43 year old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and kill him,” she posted.
She had a tumultuous childhood
Brown’s mother testified that she drank a fifth of whiskey daily while she was pregnant with her, according to the Indianapolis Star.
As a baby, Brown showed the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, which includes reduced reasoning and an inability to keep impulses at bay. She was adopted by a family in Clarksville, Tenn., but ran away from home and into the arms of her 24-year-old pimp, “Kut Throat” who forced her into a life of prostitution, according to court testimony.
Brown, then 16, met Allen at a Sonic fast food restaurant in East Nashville when he offered to pay for sex. She said she fatally shot him in the head as he lay naked beside her because he’d been behaving erratically and she feared for her life. Her lawyers argued that fetal alcohol syndrome made it impossible for her to understand the ramifications of her actions.
Prosecutors, however, claimed Brown’s motive was robbery.
She was granted clemency
Granting Brown clemency was one of Bill Haslam’s last acts as governor before leaving office in 2019.
By all accounts, the Republican former governor carefully studied the intricate facts of the case before rendering his decision in January. Haslam said he was impressed by how Brown had worked to right herself while in prison.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” he 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.
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”
She has a future that’s still undetermined
After she is released on August 7, Brown will be on parole for the next 10 years and will have to check in regularly with the correctional system. A GoFundMe page has been launched to help her get reacquainted with her new life on the outside. To date, strangers have donated over $19,000 for her reclamation to society.
Beyond that, the future is an open question mark, her lawyer, Charles Bone, told WBUR radio station.
“You won’t hear from her I don’t think until … she’s released — and maybe not even then,” Bone said. “You just have to think about the fact that a 16-year-old who’s never had a driver’s license, never voted, never had a job would now at age 30 begin that walk outside the prison walls.”