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Cyntoia Brown: Rihanna campaigned for her release, now she is finally free

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Susan Devaney
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After a number of high-profile women including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West launched an emotive campaign to free Cyntoia Brown, a US Governor granted her clemency. Today, she was finally released. 

Cyntoia Brown was just 16 when she was jailed for shooting dead Johnny Mitchell Allen, an estate agent who had picked her up for sex off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, in August 2004.

During her trial, the teenager testified that she had been raped and was on drugs for weeks before being taken to Allen’s house. When she arrived there, she said he showed her his gun collection and told her he was former Army sharpshooter, which made her nervous. 

“He grabbed me in-between my legs – he just grabbed it real hard,” she told the court. “I’m thinking he’s going to hit me or do something like it…”

Brown said she was convinced she was about to die, and claimed the shooting was self-defence. But the prosecution argued that the teen killed Allen because she wanted to steal from him (she fled afterwards with his wallet and guns). The jury agreed, and Brown was handed a life sentence, after she was found guilty as an adult of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and aggravated robbery.

Brown was currently serving life in prison in America, where she will be eligible for parole from the age of 67, at the earliest. But now, thanks to a high-profile campaign – involving celebrities such as  Rihanna, Cara Delevingne and Kim Kardashian – asking for her release, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam ordered her release, after almost 15 years behind bars

Today the now-31-year-old walked free after serving 15 years in prison. Speaking to the New York Times, Brown said: “I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.” 

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In 2011, director Dan Birman released the documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which raised serious questions about the handling of the case.

Birman charted Brown’s experience for seven years, from the week of her arrest to long after her conviction. The harrowing film features interviews with Brown, where she discusses being sex-trafficked by a physically and abusive pimp named Cut-throat. He demanded she make money, and it was on his orders that she ended up on the streets the fateful night that she shot dead Allen. The handling of young offenders by the US justice system also fell under scrutiny in the film.

In 2017, Rihanna posted an image on Instagram of Brown, asking:

“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!”

Rihanna followed the post with a picture of Brown receiving an associate’s degree in 2015. 

Kim Kardashian West also took to Twitter (at the time) to share Brown’s story and confirm that she’d consulted her attorneys, saying:

“The system has failed. It’s heart-breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better and do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.”

Cara Delevingne called for Brown’s freedom on Instagram in 2017, saying:

“The justice system is so backwards! This is completely insane,” she wrote, followed by a #FreeCyntoia Brown hashtag. 

Since then the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral across social media platforms, and a campaign on MoveOn.org urging Brown’s release received over 280,000 signatures at the time of publication.  

Karen Holden, founder of A City Law Firm, told stylist.co.uk that petitions can be surprisingly effective in such instances.

“Petitions could help by raising awareness and persuading the State to review its laws, punishment and the case,” she says. “The emphasis here is on youth justice reforms. The issue of the purpose of the punishment versus rehabilitation may also come to the fore.”

While you may be forgiven for questioning the role of celebrities in such a case, Holden says that their intervention can be helpful in raising wider social issues.

“It will raise awareness about young and vulnerable people who are subjected to crimes such as sexual slavery as well as highlighting issues with juvenile sentencing and the penal system in the U.S.,” she says.

However, at this point, her sentence stands. “The bottom line is that the State alleged she murdered the victim,” says Holden. “The laws being such that upon being found guilty she was handed a life sentence of imprisonment of 51 years. This is the time she must serve before she can be considered for release by the parole board.”

Now, celebrities have taken to Twitter to share the great news: 

Brown was released on 7 August, 2019. 

Images: Change.org

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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