Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted Cyntoia Brown clemency on Jan. 7, in a case that sparked a national debate about criminal justice reform.
Brown was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison at age 16 for shooting a man who allegedly paid her for sex in what she described as an act of self-defense. At the time, Brown said she was being trafficked by a man who sexually abused her and forced her into prostitution.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers and encouragement I have received,” Brown, now 30, said in a statement following Haslam’s decision. “We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings.”
Some might say that the governor’s call was nothing short of a miracle. But in reality, Brown’s freedom is the triumphant victory of an army of female advocates — from lawyers to journalists to activists and even celebrities.
Despite coming from fields that often seem at odds, they were united in their fight for a young woman whose harrowing story of generational violence against women laid bare the perceived shortcomings of America’s criminal justice system.
And Brown plans to pay it forward to the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States. “I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” Brown said in a statement released. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”
Meet the women who made Brown’s second chance possible.
Kathy Sinback, the first public defender
In 2004, 32-year-old public defender Kathy Sinback met Brown one day after her arrest for the killing of a Nashville real estate agent, the Tennessean reported.
Although Tennessee prosecutors wanted to try the 16-year-old as an adult, Sinback fought to keep Brown in Nashville’s juvenile detention system, to no avail. Brown was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum of 51 years.
“I felt it was a huge injustice. I also felt personally responsible. I felt I could have done more,” Sinback recently told the Tennessean.
Another lawyer took over Brown’s case, but Sinback refused to abandon the teenager. Since Brown’s conviction, Sinback visited her every other week at the Tennessee Prison for Women. “At first, it was mentoring a teenage girl, but over time it grew to a real friendship between equals,” she said.
Brown feels the same. When she was granted clemency, Brown chose Sinback to read her personal statement in court in which she wrote, “Thank you to my family for being a backbone these past 14 years. I am thankful to my lawyers and their staffs, and all the others who, for the last decade have freely given of their time and expertise to help me get to this day.”
Megan Chao, the documentary producer
In 2011, the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired on PBS and explored Brown’s story, “particularly the generations of violence against women in her family,” said associate producer Megan Chao.
The documentary was the first to garner national attention for Brown’s case, even persuading attorney Charles Bone to form a pro bono team of lawyers to represent her. “What started as a low whisper grew into a loud roar,” Chao told Makers of the movement to free Brown. “Cyntoia became a household name and a face for hope and change.”
Now Chao, the vice president of development and production for Daniel Birman Productions, is working on the follow-up film.
“Given the same footage, I would bet that a man would edit together a completely different film than the one I will edit as a woman,” said Chao. “The story isn’t over. There is more to tell.”
Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, the celebrities
In the midst of the rising #MeToo movement, Rihanna helped thrust Brown’s case into the spotlight with a single Instagram post.
“Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?” Rihanna wrote on her post using the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!”
Rihanna’s post helped the #FreeCyntoiaBrown hashtag go viral, garnering support from fellow celebrities, including rapper Snoop Dogg, rapper Meek Mill and model-actress Cara Delevingne.
Kim Kardashian, a newer voice in the fight for criminal justice reform, echoed Rihanna’s disdain and enlisted her lawyer, Shawn Holley, to re-evaluate Brown’s case last fall.
“The system has failed,” she tweeted. “It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back, she’s jailed for life! I’ve called my attorneys to see what can be done to fix this.”
Brittany Paschall, the activist
Following Brown’s sentence, activists turned their efforts toward the one person who could change her fate: Gov. Bill Haslam.
“The aim was to ensure Cyntoia’s name was continually at the forefront of public discourse and to show Haslam that he would not be able to go on with business as usual unless he did the right thing,” said Brittany Paschall, an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement in Nashville.
As women across the nation expressed indignation over Brown’s case, Paschall stepped up to organize a national campaign in partnership with Color of Change, the #MeToo movement and the Highlander Research and Education Center. Together, women started online campaigns and organized street blockades and banner drops throughout Tennessee. There were also persistent calls to local officials, clergy and Haslam, who received around “1,500 calls per hour from people across the nation demanding Cyntoia’s clemency,” Paschall said.
It worked. On Jan. 7, Haslam announced Brown would be released on parole on Aug. 7.
“This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” Haslam said in a statement. “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, 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.”
Derri Smith and Mariame Kaba, the early advocates
Early advocates like Derri Smith of End Slavery Tennessee and Mariame Kaba of Survived and Punished worked to bring more attention to Brown’s story over the years and shed light on the broken system around juvenile sentencing in Tennessee.
Smith, the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, a nonprofit that helps sex trafficking victims find resources that include housing and addiction treatment, first met Brown in 2017 when Brown reached out for help on a capstone project that is part of her efforts to earn a bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University. (Brown is now on track to graduate in May.)
Since then, Smith has been a vocal advocate for Brown, speaking to Haslam and the parole board on her behalf, visiting Brown in prison and starting a letter-writing campaign in support of Brown’s clemency petition.
“If someone like Cyntoia, who’s worked so hard on her own rehabilitation, hadn’t been given clemency, the message would have been there’s no point because it’s not going to make any difference” to those who are trying to turn their lives around, Smith said in an interview with Broadly.
Meanwhile, End Slavery Tennessee has worked with Brown through one-on-one counseling and will continue to provide services to her when she is released on parole in August.
The fight doesn’t stop there. New York-based activist Kaba points out that upon her release, Brown will be on parole for a decade, can be returned to prison for any small violation and will have to re-enter society with a murder conviction on her record.
“It’s heartening that so many people were outraged and channeled that energy into pushing for clemency for Cyntoia. It’s important, however, to note that she isn’t truly free,” said Kaba, who organized free screenings of the documentary Me Facing Life in Chicago through Project NIA, an organization that “works to dramatically decrease the number of children and youth in Chicago who are arrested, detained, and incarcerated.”
“There are thousands of Cyntoia’s in our prisons across the country,” said Kaba. “I hope everyone remains committed to fighting to #FreeThemAll.”