Imagine being 16 years old, running away from your adoptive parents and finding yourself living in a motel with an abusive pimp. Imagine, in the midst of that, being picked up at a Sonic Drive-In by a 43-year-old stranger who agreed to pay you $150 for sex, and once in bed with him, fearing for your life when you believe he is going to hurt you. Then imagine being sentenced to life in prison, and spending the next 15 years behind bars for shooting him in self-defense. This is the story of Cyntoia Brown, now 31, who was released from a Tennessee prison on Wednesday, after sparking national headlines and furious calls for criminal justice reform, including from Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West.
Under pressure from advocates in January, outgoing Republican governor Bill Haslam granted her clemency, and Brown’s life sentence was commuted to 15 years from the date of her arrest in 2004, when she was tried as an adult for killing Johnny M. Allen, a real estate broker who agreed to pay an underage Brown for sex. Brown told authorities she feared for her life when, in bed with Allen, she believed he was reaching for a gun. At the time of her arrest, Brown said she had run away from home and been forced into prostitution by a pimp who had raped her.
Had Brown’s life sentence remained, she would not have been eligible for parole until 2055—after 51 years in jail—when she’d be 67 years old. When announcing that he’d grant Brown clemency, Haslam said she had committed a “horrific crime at the age of 16,” but “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.” During her 15 years behind bars, Brown was praised as a “model prisoner” who earned both an associate degree—with a 4.0 GPA—and a high school equivalency diploma.
“Society was better off with Cyntoia out of prison,” Haslam told the Today show on Wednesday.
Through attorneys, Brown released a statement vowing to use her experience “to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.” She will soon say much more: this week, Atria Books announced it will publish Free Cyntoia, a book Brown wrote over the course of her incarceration.
According to the publisher: “In her own words, Cyntoia Brown shares the riveting and redemptive story of how she changed her life for the better.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue