Celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna have been using social media this week to call for the release of Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in Tennessee in 2004 after she fatally shot a 43-year-old man who had hired her for sex when she was just 16.
"Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way??" Rihanna wrote on Instagram on Tuesday. "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!"
"The system has failed," wrote Kardashian West, also on Tuesday. "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"
Brown's story first captured public attention after the 2011 documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story, which explored her case and the impact of her life as a teenage sex trafficking victim.
Brown, now 29, is appealing her case in the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in the wake of recent US Supreme Court rulings that mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional. Her lawyers also plan to file a petition for clemency with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam before the end of the year.
Her attorney, Charles Bone, said he's not sure why the celebrities have noticed Brown's case now, but says any support is welcome.
"This issue in general is worthy of a lot of publicity especially in the culture in which we live today," Bone told BuzzFeed News. "And we think the fact that Cyntoia happens to be the child that is the subject of all of the publicity in the last 24 hours is wonderful. Obviously she is not a child anymore, but she was sentenced as a child."
The man Brown shot, 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen, had picked Brown up on a Nashville roadside and hired her for sex. At the time, she was staying in a hotel with a man she referred to in court records as "Cut," a 24-year-old whom she met after running away from her adoptive parents' home.
On the advice of her lawyers, Brown did not testify during her 2004 trial, but during an appeals process in 2014 she said "Cut" verbally and physically abused her, forced her to prostitute herself, and once "almost killed her."
"In July 2004, she met 'Cut Throat,' who was 24 years old, and began using cocaine and staying in a hotel with him," read a court document from the appeal, which was ultimately denied. "At first, 'Cut' was nice to her. However, he began verbally and physically abusing her. He also sexually assaulted her and made her prostitute herself. The Petitioner had to give the money she earned to Cut. She said that he was violent to her, that he almost killed her one time by choking her, and that she was scared of him."
She said she shot Allen because she feared that he was going to physically hurt her. Prosecutors said her motive was to rob the victim, but Brown said she took guns and cash from his house after the shooting because she feared returning to "Cut" empty-handed.
Her lawyers, through the appeals process, also showed that Brown has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can impair sufferers' judgment in stressful situations — a condition that was not diagnosed during her initial trial.
Brown has now been in prison for 13 years. In that time, she's earned an associate arts degree and is working on a bachelor's through Lipscomb University, which provides classes at the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she's serving out her sentence. Tennessee courts, including the state Supreme Court, have denied numerous appeals and requests for postconviction relief from Brown.
But the way teenage victims of sex trafficking, and minors sentenced to life in prison, are treated by the law has changed significantly since Brown was convicted more than a decade ago.
The state of Tennessee has put in place numerous protections for child sex trafficking victims, including a law passed in 2011 that provides immunity from prostitution charges for anyone under the age of 18, and a 2012 law that gives victims of human trafficking a defense in prostitution cases.
Though she was not convicted for prostitution — her sentence was handed down for first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, and especially aggravated robbery — advocates say that she was referred to at the time as a "teenage prostitute" and that she would not have been handed a life sentence under today's laws.
"She never would have gotten life had she been tried today," Derri Smith, CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, a nonprofit that's been working with Brown, told BuzzFeed News. "It’s a case that absolutely needs to be reexamined in light of what we understand today about complex trauma and human trafficking."
"She was referred to incessantly in her original case as a teen prostitute. There’s no such thing as a teen prostitute. She was a human trafficking victim," Smith said.
A US Supreme Court decision last year led states to review their policies on mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for people convicted of crimes when they were minors. That decision, which expanded on a previous SCOTUS decision from 2012, was based on scientific evidence that teenagers' brains are not fully developed to make rational decisions on the same level as adults.
But in Tennessee none of the 148 cases of people sentenced to life in prison as minors have been reviewed, and minors can still be effectively sentenced to life without parole, because of an existing rule that life sentences can only be reviewed every 51 years.
That means Brown would not be eligible for review until she's 67.
"We are in this kind of loophole where we don’t fall under the Supreme Court prohibition of mandatory life without parole, but we really do have mandatory life without parole because that’s basically what 51 years is," said Kathy Sinback, an attorney and court administrator at the Davidson County Juvenile Court.
Sinback was Brown's lawyer in the juvenile court system before she was transferred to be tried as an adult in 2004, and has been advocating for Brown ever since. She said Brown is working on a capstone project, part of her bachelor's degree, about human trafficking and is developing an outreach program for girls.
She "does not feel like a victim of the system" because it gave her the opportunity to get an education, Sinback said. "She feels like the system really worked to save her life. Because if she was still out on the street she feels like she would be dead by now," she said.
Sinback said Brown was aware of the celebrities now posting about her case.
"She’s feeling the love and support from these public figures, and it’s giving her more than anything hope and motivation to continue to achieve and do well in her life," Sinback said.
Brown's advocates say they hope the celebrity attention can help Brown's case but also draw attention to the idea that young people in prison should be given the opportunity to be rehabilitated and released, as well as raise awareness around sex trafficking.
"She was sentenced as a child, and the fact that she was a sex slave and the pimp she was living with was trafficking her is worthy of not just celebrities but all of us," said Bone, Brown's attorney. "To be aware of the gravity of what’s going on, not just in Tennessee but the entire world, needs a lot of attention and a lot support."
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a 2016 Supreme Court ruling regarding juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The decision, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, found that juveniles previously given mandatory sentences of life without parole are covered by a 2012 ruling that banned the practice going forward.