On Wednesday, 31-year-old Cyntoia Brown was released on parole from the Tennessee Prison for Women after serving 15 years for the murder of a man who, she said, threatened her life during a 2004 sexual encounter. The case of Brown, a homeless trafficking victim who was only 16 years old at the time of the alleged crime, highlights the dangerous conditions in which trafficking victims and sex workers operate—and how the criminal justice system fails to protect them from violence.
In 2004, Brown was living with 24-year-old Garion McGlothlen, who routinely beat and raped her and sold her to johns in the Nashville area, using that income to support himself. In November of that year, a 43-year-old man named John Michael Allen met Brown at a Sonic Drive-In and drove her to his home, intending to pay $150 for sex. But at some point during the evening, Brown told police, Allen began exhibiting threatening behavior, causing her to fear for her life. Using a pistol stored in her purse—McGlothlen had given it to her for protection—she shot Allen and then fled.
At trial, Brown did not dispute that she had killed Allen, but asserted that she had done so in self-defense. Nevertheless, prosecutors tried her as an adult, a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery, and she was sentenced to life in prison in 2006. Under Tennessee law, absent gubernatorial intervention, she would have to serve a minimum of 51 years before becoming eligible for parole, making release impossible until after her 69th birthday. Put differently, Brown, a minor and a sex trafficking victim, received a sentence 47 times longer than Jeffrey Epstein, an actual adult sex trafficker.
Brown earned both a GED and an associate's degree while incarcerated, and she expects to complete her bachelor's degree sometime this year. Meanwhile, her story received renewed attention in 2017 when Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, and other celebrities began posting about the story on social media using a #FreeCyntoiaBrown hashtag. In response to a clemency bid filed by Brown's lawyers, the state's six-member clemency board issued a split recommendation to then-Tennessee governor Bill Haslam in May 2018: two members urged him to approve it, two more suggested that he shorten her sentence to 25 years, and the other two recommended that he reject her application altogether.
On January 7, 2019, shortly before his term ended—and while the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was considering a separate constitutional challenge to the length of her sentence—Haslam decided to grant Brown's request, calling her case "tragic and complex." In a statement, however, he did not mention the abuse Brown endured, or her claim that she acted only in self-defense, or even the fact that she was a trafficked child in the first place. Instead, he explained, he had determined that sentencing a juvenile to a minimum 51-year-sentence was "too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life." The press release credits her "extraordinary personal transformation" with swaying the governor's thinking, raising the question of how Haslam would have decided if not for Cyntoia Brown's educational accomplishments.
At least 28 states, including Tennessee, have enacted so-called "safe harbor" laws to protect trafficked children from being prosecuted for prostitution-related criminal offenses, according to a survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Brown would have been immune, in other words, if her john were merely arrested for solicitation. However, such laws do not protect victims from prosecution in situations like hers, when an alleged crime—fighting back against johns who turn violent—is not prostitution per se, but is still a foreseeable outcome in the illicit economy in which abusers forced trafficked children to operate.
Even when a person engages voluntarily in sex work, the American justice system does a poor job of shielding them from the unique occupational hazards they face. In a 1998 study, for example, researchers who interviewed 130 San Francisco sex workers found that 82 percent had been assaulted and 68 percent had been raped, either by a john or by someone else. As noted in 2014 analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health, the criminalization of sex work affords victims of violence with few formal legal protections or reporting options. Fearing criminal prosecution—or further retribution from their attackers—many sex workers are forced to remain silent.
When sex workers or trafficking victims experience violence, they face an uphill battle when asserting self-defense claims, because the same social stigma makes it harder to earn a jury's sympathies. Last week, an Oklahoma appeals court upheld a life sentence for Sumeika Byrd, who was convicted of murder in the 2015 death of a 28-year-old john. Byrd, now 33, testified that she grabbed a pocketknife off the floor only after he grew violent with her. In 2014, a 22-year-old woman named Alisha Walker was arrested for the stabbing death of a 61-year-old man who, she told police, punched her and then charged her with a knife after she refused to have unprotected sex with him. The jury found her guilty of second-degree murder, and she received a 15-year prison sentence.
Originally Appeared on GQ