Cyntoia Brown and the Quality of Mercy
On a warm Tennessee night 14 ½ years ago, Johnny Michael Allen took a fateful drive. A 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent and youth pastor, Allen was cruising town in his white Ford F-150 pickup. Although divorced, he had a steady girlfriend, Nancy Liker, whom he’d originally planned to see that evening, a Friday. A conflict arose, so she canceled, but the next morning she drove to Johnny’s house. Not seeing his truck, she left -- meaning she wasn’t the one to find his body.
At 11 p.m. Friday, Allen had driven past a Sonic Drive-In on Murfreesboro Pike when he spotted Cyntoia Brown. Cyntoia would tell arresting officers that she was 19 years old, so it’s reasonable to assume she told Allen the same thing. Actually, she was a 16-year-old runaway from Clarksville, Tenn., who’d fallen in with a bad crowd. She was living in a motel with a 24-year-old drug dealer who beat her and forced her to have sex with him and others.
In the days to come, Cyntoia would provide varied accounts about what happened. Some of it was lies, some was true. A few facts she didn’t deviate from: She said Allen took her to the Sonic, then to his home, located about a mile away, where they ate dinner and watched television. She once said Allen talked to her about straightening out her life. On other occasions, she said he propositioned her, and that they agreed on a price -- $150. She’s said they didn’t have sex. Another fact never disputed is that when she climbed into Allen’s pickup, she carried a loaded .40-caliber handgun with her. This was the gun she used to kill him with a single shot to the head.
Tried in adult court, she was convicted of murder and robbery and sentenced to 51 years in prison, the mandatory term in Tennessee. Hers was hardly an isolated case. In Tennessee alone, about 100 inmates who committed killings as juveniles are serving 51-year sentences, along with 13 others originally sentenced to mandatory life sentences with no chance of parole.
Nationwide, some 10,000 juvenile offenders -- 10,000 children -- are housed in adult prisons or jails. This trend accelerated a generation ago, as politicians sought to counter an expected wave of “super predators.” Although the social science turned out to be hype, it coincided with a tough approach epitomized by “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” statutes, harsher uniform sentencing, and curbing parole. As prisons filled up, too little money was left for rehabilitation.
In time, the pendulum began to shift. As a bipartisan consensus has taken shape, Congress passed -- and President Trump recently signed -- a crime bill reflecting this attitude. The new law, The First Step Act, lowers some of the more draconian mandatory minimums in federal sentencing and designates money for rehabilitation efforts. Even before some of this rethinking was done, Cyntoia Brown’s case garnered attention. She was so young on the grim night of Aug. 6, 2004, and her life had been such a living hell. Moreover, she blossomed in prison, earning a college degree and becoming a compelling woman who impressed the lawyers and social workers she met –even one of the attorneys who kept her behind bars.
“I served as the prosecutor who argued against her appeal,” he wrote recently. “But I later got to know Cyntoia personally when I had her in a college class that I taught at the prison where she was incarcerated. … We were able to put the past aside and forge a friendship.”
That former prosecutor, Preston Shipp, was among the chorus of voices who inveighed on Cyntoia’s Brown’s behalf. Eventually, those voices were heeded: Last week, outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency. Brown is scheduled to be released on Aug. 7, 2019 -- 15 years to the day she was arrested.
Noting the “extraordinary steps” she’d taken to rebuild her life, Haslam proclaimed, “Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”
His decision was widely, if not universally, hailed. With help from megastars Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, and Rihanna, Brown became an international cause célèbre. Two factors played a role. The first was a powerful documentary by crusading University of Southern California journalism professor Daniel H. Birman. This is good. It shows that in a media environment epitomized by snark and partisanship, quality investigative journalism can still move hearts and change minds.
The second factor is less uplifting. Her case took on new life amid a #MeToo context in which Johnny Allen was made into the perpetrator, not the victim.
“In 2004, when she was 16, she shot and killed a man who bought her for sex,” wrote Hollywood activist Alyssa Milano in The Washington Post. “Later, she would say that she feared both her client and the pimp who sold her.”
“Let’s be clear,” added the FreeCyntoia Brown webpage, “Cyntoia should never have been put in a cage for daring to survive in the first place.”
Yes, be clear. Yes, Cyntoia Brown had a horrific childhood, but that wasn’t Johnny Allen’s doing. As far as is known, he never hurt her in any way. He seems to have intended to have sexual relations with her, but reconsidered. We’ll never know for sure.
Cyntoia told the arresting officers that she shot Allen because he was acting squirrely and she feared for her life. The physical evidence didn’t back this up. Allen appears to have been asleep when he was shot in the back of the head. Neither prosecutors nor the jury believed the self-defense angle. Brown’s fellow inmates didn’t either. One told her the story sounded “too perfect.” Cyntoia laughed in response, and said she really shot Allen “just to see how it feels to kill somebody.”
She also sent this inmate a written note volunteering that she didn’t feel threatened by Allen. A Nashville detective who opposed clemency believes her motive was robbery. She did rob Allen, too, taking cash from his dresser and rifles he stored downstairs. At the stationhouse, she told her foster mother, “I killed somebody. … I executed him.”
My point isn’t that Cyntoia Brown should stay prison. Or that celebrities are chumps. It’s not even that Allen didn’t deserve to die. That’s obvious, as Brown herself has acknowledged. My point is that it is not necessary to demonize the murder victim to justify mercy for the killer. This woman, now 30, was dealt a terrible hand in life, and made a tragic mistake. In prison, of all places, she got her act together, creating a purpose-driven life -- that purpose being to help other at-risk girls.
If we depend on vilifying the man she killed to justify taking a chance on her, we are dooming thousands of other youthful offenders whose victims were above reproach to their fate. We should show faith in Brown because she represents hope.
“Cyntoia's story should not demand our attention because she is a rare exception,” says Preston Shipp. “The opposite is true. She represents many other people who, like her, received harsh sentences as children and underwent a profound and beautiful transformation, yet remain incarcerated. … Imprisoning people for decades, even after they have demonstrated rehabilitation, is a failure on the part of society to live up to our best values of redemption and second chances.”