A 30-year-old Tennessee woman who has controversially been imprisoned since she was a teenager for murdering a man who solicited her for sex must remain behind bars for at least 51 years, the state’s supreme court said this week.
The decision, issued Thursday, is a blow to Cyntoia Brown’s years-long efforts to overturn her sentence in the 2004 shooting of Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent.
Brown has long maintained she was forced to be an underage prostitute by a boyfriend who then took the money that she would make. She claimed that after Allen picked her up in August 2004, she shot him in self-defense because she saw him reach for a gun while the two were in bed.
The jury rejected her story, however, and prosecutors said she was motivated by her desire to rob Allen. She was tried and convicted as an adult.
Brown, now 30, argued that her lifelong imprisonment was unconstitutional under a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which found that juveniles could not receive mandatory life sentences without parole.
That appeal was rejected, and Brown subsequently contended her punishment was “cruel and unusual” under the same 2012 ruling.
This second appeal remains under the consideration of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which, characterizing existing state law as unclear, asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to weigh in with its opinion on whether Brown could be paroled for her murder conviction.
The state supreme unanimously agreed that under Tennessee law Brown can only become eligible for early release after serving at least 51 years of her sentence, when she will be 69.
“Under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years. However, the sixty-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 percent, or 9 years, by earning various sentence credits” for good behavior and participation in educational and vocational training, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided.
Brown’s case has attracted the attention of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna, and it was covered in a 2011 PBS documentary.
“The system has failed. … I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this,” West tweeted last year.
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In May, Brown appeared before the Tennessee Board of Parole for a clemency hearing. The six-member board was split, with two members voting to release her while two others voted to deny her request for freedom.
The remaining two members suggested her sentence should be significantly shortened to make her parole eligible in 2029, after Brown she has served 25 years. The decision to free Brown ultimately rests with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
“The governor thoughtfully reviews any clemency application and recommendation from the Board of Parole,” a spokesman said in May, according to the Tennessean.