Editor's note: This story was originally published Nov. 29, 2017.
On Monday, Cyntoia Brown's case made news again as Black Lives Matter activists made a strong push to urge outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to grant her clemency before his term ends.
Celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West are using their social media platforms to bring attention to a decades old case involving a child sex slave who is currently jailed in Nashville, Tennessee for killing her abuser.
The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown started trending last week after Rihanna shared an image of text describing Brown's case on Instagram.
"Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way," the singer wrote in the post. "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!"
Then, Kardashian-West shared the image on Twitter.
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 & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
Who is Cyntoia Brown?
Cyntoia Brown is serving life in prison for the 2004 murder of 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allan.
Despite being a minor at the time of the crime, Brown was tried as an adult. She was held in custody until her trial in 2006, and was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. She’s eligible for parole in 2055, when she'll be 67-years-old.
During the trial, Brown’s attorneys argued that she was a victim of sex trafficking and shot Allan in self defense. Brown testified that the day of the shooting, Allan picked her up in a parking lot after soliciting her for sex and drove her to his home.
According to the police report, his body was found naked in his bed with two bullet wounds in his back. Brown testified that Allan had undressed before getting into bed with her.
“He was a sharpshooter in the Army," she said. "I'm sitting here thinking if he does something, what am I going to do?”
She says she feared for her life after Allan reached under the bed because she thought he was "gonna get a gun or is gonna do something to me."
She said that's when she grabbed a gun from her purse and shot Allan in the back.
Until recently, Brown's case received little media attention outside of Nashville.
In 2011, the Nashville Scene published an in-depth profile about Brown's life before and after trial through interviews with people closest to the case, including family members, social workers, psychologists, teachers, and prison officials.
A documentary finds a new audience
PBS aired a documentary about the case called “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story” in 2011. Filmmaker Dan Birman said he’s grateful Brown’s story is finally getting the attention it deserves.
“I'm glad we were able to start that conversation," Birman told our affiliate Fox 17 News. "How this turns out - that's going to be for lawyers, judges, governor, and others to figure out.”
Birman’s documentary cited court documents from the trial, including testimony from Brown’s mother who said she drank at least a fifth of alcohol a day while she was pregnant.
Brown spoke candidly about being physically, sexually, and verbally abused by her father and adoptive parents.
“We started the conversation, this is a young girl who's at the tail end of three generations of violence against women,” Birman said.
Cyntoia, her grandmother, and mother were all victims of domestic violence and rape.
“She had no chance,” Birman added.
Brown testified that after she ran away from home to escape the abuse, she was forced into prostitution by a pimp named “Cut Throat." She said he would regularly rape her at gun point and threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave.
Prosecution says Brown is no victim
At trial, the prosecution dismissed Brown’s claim of self-defense and argued it was a robbery gone wrong because she stole Allan’s wallet after shooting him.
Attorney Jeff Burks was the lead prosecutor during Brown’s criminal trial and says he still believes the jury made the right decision. He declined requests for an interview, but sent the following statement to Fox 17 News.
"There has been a group of people who have wanted to make Ms. Brown a victim and a celebrity since this happened. She was not trafficked nor was she a sex slave. It's not fair to the victim and his family that the other side of this case is so seldom heard."
What happens now?
Brown's pro bono attorney said Brown is shocked about the outpouring of national support for her.
“I talked to Cyntoia about noon today," Charles Bone said. "She's very shocked and surprised and thankful as we all are for the interest of these celebrities. In today's world, we never know…when you're going to do a story that lights a fire."
Brown said in a statement via her lawyers that she was blown away by all the attention. “Just to see all the people and all the different organizations who believe in me and who want to stand up for me it's humbling and mind blowing."
Brown, now 29 years old, received her GED in prison and is working on earning a Bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University.
The US Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in 2012. Criminal Justice advocates are calling on the state of Tennessee to overturn Brown’s sentence. They hope as her story gains more public interest, it will inspire state lawmakers to rethink current juvenile punishment policies.
On Sunday, a representative for Kim Kardashian confirmed that her lawyers had contacted Brown’s attorneys about the case.
According to TheBlast.com, one of the attorneys Kardashian hired to work on the case is Shawn Holley. Holley was part of Johnnie Cochran’s legal team during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.
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