We Can Take Action to #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Here's How.
UPDATED: This article was originally posted on May 24th. It was updated on December 10th in light of the recent decision made by the Tennessee Supreme Court to sentence Cyntoia Brown to 51 years in prison. On January 7th, Cyntoia Brown received full clemency. Her release date is set for August. Read more about this update here.
Chances are, you’ve heard the name Cyntoia Brown in the last year. With the help of celebrity buzz from Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, LeBron James and others, public awareness about an old yet seemingly unjust court case has sparked a social media movement crying for justice for Cyntoia. The 2004 trial that sentenced 16-year-old Cyntoia to life in prison has people outraged, and rightly so. Here is everything you need to know about trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown, and what you can do to advocate for her early release.
Cyntoia was born in Tennessee to an alcoholic mother and spent the first years of her life in instability, being moved between a handful of different families over the course of her childhood. She has been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, impacting her decision-making abilities among other things. For the majority of her life, she lived with her adoptive family but ran away at the age of 16.
It was after running away that she met a pimp by the name of “Kut Throat”, who lured her in with attention and gifts before forcing her into prostitution. Cyntoia describes him as cold and uncaring, repeatedly abusing her and threatening her life if she didn’t do as he told. He forced her to start using drugs and prostituting herself, keeping all the money that came in. Cyntoia felt trapped, saying to a court examiner, “I made him money. He wasn’t gonna let me go nowhere...he told me he’d kill me. He knows where my mom lives.”
“I made him money. He wasn’t gonna let me go nowhere...he told me he’d kill me. He knows where my mom lives.”
In 2004, A 42-year-old man picked her up and took her to his home, where he agreed to pay her in exchange for sex. Cyntoia recalls feeling incredibly unsafe in his home. The man took her around to show off his collection of guns, describing himself as a “sharpshooter”. She remembers thinking,
“I look at myself, and think, ‘Who am I? Who am I to him?’...Then, he talks about the guns and stuff. If he does something to me, what can I do?”
Pretending to sleep, Cyntoia saw him reach under the bed and thought he was reaching for a gun to shoot her. Without thinking, she reached for a gun in her purse that her pimp gave to her for safety and shot him in the back of the head. She didn’t even know if he was dead but knew she couldn’t go back to her pimp empty-handed. She took the man’s wallet and a gun and left as quickly as she could.
In her court case, it’s difficult to see what went right. Cyntoia was tried as an adult at the age of 16, because the state of Tennessee grants no protection for prostitutes under the law. The pimp was never tried, though he was the one who forced her into prostitution, supplied the weapon, and created an unsafe situation in which Cyntoia felt like she was exhibiting self-defense. The case ended with Cyntoia being sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 51 years, on the grounds of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. She was recognized as a prostitute by choice rather than a victim of trafficking, ignoring her story and the background of abuse that surrounded her life. Cyntoia Brown’s case was closed in 2004.
The case ended with Cyntoia being sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 51 years, on the grounds of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery.
Six years later, PBS created a documentary about her titled Me Facing Life: The Story of Cyntoia Brown that has helped spread awareness about her case and unjust imprisonment. Cyntoia is described as a “model prisoner,” and has even completed her associate degree while in jail. Combined with attention from celebrities on social media, many people are hearing about Cyntoia for the first time - 14 years later. This surge of attention is also opening many peoples’ eyes to injustice in the court system and the special measures that need to be in place for victims of human trafficking.
Cyntoia is now 30 years old, and still imprisoned in Tennessee.
She remains positive through it all, saying of her story being told that “if I can keep one child from going down the path that I went down, it will be worth it."
“If I can keep one child from going down the path that I went down, it will be worth it."
As Lilla Watson said once, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Cyntoia’s case is a reminder that our society is still learning about the reality of human trafficking. The legal systems and officials that condemned Cyntoia rather than seeing her as a victim are still in place today and will continue to misconstrue the truth until there exists a broader understanding of human trafficking - who is the victim, and who is at fault. The power of awareness is changing how decision makers view victims of human trafficking, and reshaping the story. The internet movement around Cyntoia is a symbol that we are moving in the right direction, and more people are coming to understand the truth about trafficking. But the work is not done yet!
Our legal bodies need to educate themselves on the manipulation and coercion behind human trafficking to be able to make informed decisions on cases. We can remain powerful advocates by having an attuned mind and reminding decision makers to understand the full picture.
Cyntoia’s story is both a celebration of the strength of committed and educated individuals and a reminder of the many ways victims are still misunderstood and misrepresented. But let this be an inspiration to keep advocating and educating in communities and legal bodies for the freedom of Cyntoia, and the many like her.
About the Author
Mallory Mishler is a Michigander, studying Women’s and Gender Studies and Peace and Justice. She is passionate about using her voice to advocate for the freedom of all people, especially through creative mediums. When not writing, she can be found climbing mountains, caring for her plants, or painting on things that shouldn’t be painted.