image: screencap Cyntoia Brown at 16 in a scene from the documentary "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story | The 16yr old Killer"

Why You Should Care About Cyntoia Brown

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As frustrating as it is for some, there is value when celebrities speak up about causes and injustices. Their platform allows important information to spread much faster than it might even through mainstream media. The sad fact is that I didn’t know the now 13-year-old story of Cyntoia Brown until it started picking up steam recently thanks to people like Rihanna, T.I., Kim Kardashian, and Cara Delevigne. And it’s a story that should infuriate us all.

Back in 2004, Cyntoia Brown was a 16-year-old girl who’d run away from her adoptive mother in Nashville, TN. She’d spent a year crashing with friends when, in the summer of 2004, she met a 24-year-old nicknamed “Kutthroat.” She called him “Kut.” They moved in together, staying in various motels and doing cocaine. He was physically and sexually abusive, constantly threatening her at gunpoint or choking her.

As reported by The Spokesman-Review:

He forced her to prostitute herself so that they would have money to live, she said. On the day she met [Johnny] Allen — Aug. 5, 2004 — the man she called Cut had hit her and told her to go out and bring back some money.

Allen picked her up off the street and bought her some fast food. He asked her if she was OK, but after listening to her story, asked if she was “up for any action,” Brown said.

He drove her back to his house where his strange behavior frightened her and made her want to escape. When she couldn’t sneak away, she said she wanted to nap. He lay down with her but didn’t fall asleep. He kept getting up and standing over her. She became more panicked, convinced something was going to happen to her. Finally, she shrugged off his advances and, as he rolled over, she took a gun from her purse and shot him once in the head.

She was tried as an adult, inadequately represented, and ended up being convicted and sentenced to 51 years in prison.

In 2011, a filmmaker named Dan Birman released a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, for which he was granted access to her case shortly after her arrest and spent seven years documenting. You can watch the documentary above in full.

Whereas she was charged as an adult and seen as a killer at the time of her conviction, the documentary shed light on the nuances of the case. Nuances that make it less and less palatable that this young woman will spend most of the rest of her life in prison. The largest part being that she was a minor, and should have been charged as a minor. She could not legally consent to anything that happened to her leading up to the shooting, which according to her testimony, was done in self-defense.

Watching her be questioned by the prosecutor during her transfer hearing (which would decide whether she gets charged as a juvenile or as an adult) in the documentary is excruciating. This grown man is questioning this 16-year-old runaway as if she’s a grown woman, asking her why she felt “comfortable enough” to “let” this 40-something man take her home and give her food, but suddenly stopped feeling comfortable.

The tone of his voice is sickening, and the layers of bigotry required for that tone to exist are deep.

She’s female, and so not only can she inherently not be trusted, but this male prosecutor has no concept of what a young woman might feel in that situation. Then there’s the fact that she was considered a “sex worker” even though she wasn’t old enough to legally consent, and even if she were, she was being coerced by an abusive boyfriend to prostitute herself. That’s not sex work, that’s sex trafficking.

Lastly, but most certainly not least, is the issue of race. It doesn’t seem as though the prosecutor sees Cyntoia as a girl, which is sadly all-too-common for black children, who are often seen as more adult than they actually are, whereas white children are seen as young and innocent well into their 20s, sometimes later.

Later, Jeff Burks, the Assistant District Attorney who successfully jailed Cyntoia, warned against sympathizing with her saying, “She wasn’t just somebody who make one mistake. She was a very dangerous person. The choices she made were hers. She’s pretty and smart and articulate so people have decided to take up her cause. Let’s not forget her crime.”

While she’s certainly made her share of mistakes, they did not happen in a vacuum, and this was her one and only violent crime after years of abuse at the hands of others. A “dangerous person?” Really? The person she was most a danger to was herself.

What’s sad is that now, this case has changed the law in Cyntoia’s home state. Tennessee now recognizes that there is no such thing as “child prostitution.” If Cyntoia stood trial today, she’d be treated as a victim of sex trafficking. Instead, she’s being robbed of the rest of her life.

Thirteen years after her arrest, her case has attracted the attention of celebrities, and by extension, the mainstream media.

Kim Kardashian says that she’s approaching her lawyers to see if there’s anything they can do:

Rhianna wonders what happened to the definition of “justice:”

Cara Delevigne says what many of us already know: the justice system is backward:

The justice system is so backwards!!! This is completely insane #freecyntoiabrown

A post shared by Cara Delevingne (@caradelevingne) on

The case is getting this renewed attention thanks to a story done at Fox 17 Nashville, delivering an update on Cyntoia’s case. That story caught the attention of the celebs above as well as countless others, both celeb and not, all congregating under the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, which has blown up on social media as people speak out on her behalf.

There’s also a petition out there, petitioning for a pardon from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, which has nearly 140,000 signatures, with over 75,000 of those from within the last two days, according to Refinery 29.

I’m so glad that there’s renewed interest in this case, and that celebrities have amplified the signal on this story. There is absolutely no justice being served here by keeping Cyntoia Brown in prison.

When I first heard this story, I was reminded of an episode of How to Get Away With Murder, in which Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) takes the case of her former cellmate in prison (long story). The client is Jasmine, a 50-something woman in prison for prostitution and related offenses. Thing is, she was gang-raped and trafficked when she was 13, and has been charged and handled like an adult ever since. Through legal maneuverings, Annalise manages to free her. Great, right?

But Jasmine has spent so much time in prison, or in and out of the system, that she’s not equipped to deal with the outside. She ends up dead after a drug overdose not long after she’s released.  I don’t want that to be Cyntoia’s story.

So far, she’s taken steps to do as much as she can to stay focused even while in prison. The now 29-year-old Cyntoia has completed her associate’s degree and is currently working on her B.A.. She also works with the Juvenile Justice system as a mentor to other young, female prisoners. Here’s hoping that she is able to maintain that kind of focus on her life until the justice system finally, at long last, does right by her.

(image: screencap)

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Image of Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.