The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking victim who was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery when she was 16 years old, must serve 51 years in prison before she is eligible for parole.
Brown, now 30, was convicted in 2006 for the murder of 43-year-old Johnny Allen, a man who had hired her as a sex worker when she was a teenager. After Allen drove Brown to his home, she allegedly resisted his advances. At one point, Brown claimed she thought Allen was reaching for a gun to kill her and pulled a gun out of her bag instead, shooting and killing him.
Prosecutors claimed Brown had gone with Allen in order to rob him. Her lawyers argued that Brown, a runaway who had been raped, abused, and forced into prostitution by a man named “Kut Throat,” was acting out of self defense.
Brown was subsequently charged with one count of first degree premeditated murder, one count of first degree felony murder, and one count of “especially aggravated robbery.” She was tried as an adult and convicted two years later.
Brown’s story is not unique. In her home state of Tennessee, she’s one of at least 183 people serving life without parole for crimes committed as a child. It is estimated that there are around 2,100 people serving out sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles nationwide, according to The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for a fair and effective criminal justice system.
Laura Berry, 51, used to be one of them. Berry, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole when she was 17, wrote a column for the nonprofit journalism organization The Marshall Project and BuzzFeed in November. In it, she described her involvement in the murder of her great aunt and what came after — a long prison sentence, during which she became pregnant after being raped by a guard.
Both the prison staff and the guard who raped her “tried to force me to terminate the pregnancy, claiming that as a ward of the state, I had no choice,” Berry wrote. “But I refused, and was put into solitary confinement for lying about who had fathered the child, and for having had ‘consensual’ sex with an officer. In solitary, I had no mattress and was fed only bologna sandwiches.”
Berry’s story eventually found its way to ACLU after another prison guard contacted the group and told them of her situation. The ACLU was subsequently able to help her find a lawyer that worked to get her released, but not before being denied clemency five separate times.
In the end, Berry credited her lawyer’s hard work and a 2017 Arkansas law that allowed her to be resentenced because she had committed her crime as a minor for her release. “[…] By that December, suddenly, gloriously, I was released from prison,” she wrote. “…I consider myself among the beautifully lucky.”
Since Brown was convicted, thirty-four states have passed safe harbor laws, which prevent children caught up in sex-trafficking from being charged for any crimes committed that were tied to their experience. Though Brown will not benefit from such a law, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said his office is currently reviewing her case and is considering whether to grant her clemency.