Cyntoia Brown is, finally, to be released. The 30-year-old was granted clemency yesterday by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam after spending nearly 15 years in a maximum-security Tennessee prison. Brown had been found guilty of the murder of 43-year-old Johnny Allen, a man who had agreed to pay her for sex and – despite a plea of self-defence – was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery after being tried as an adult in 2004. She was just 16 and wouldn’t have been eligible for parole until she was 67.
The details of Brown’s defence are devastating. She is a victim of child sex-trafficking and says she only shot Allen – who had been roughly groping her since they arrived back at his house – when he reached over to the other side of the bed, in a move that Brown interpreted as reaching for a gun. The prosecution argued that Brown shot him as part of a robbery, as she took his wallet and guns, but Brown’s lawyers said she only did so as she was afraid of returning to her violent pimp, known as “Kutthroat”, empty-handed. Again, she was just 16 years old at the time of her conviction.
In December last year, the Tennessee Supreme Court said that Brown must serve a minimum of five decades before she would be eligible for parole, but Haslam’s decision to grant clemency holds more power and trumps the court’s ruling. In a statement, Haslam, who is a Republican, said: “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. Transformation should be accompanied by hope." As of yesterday, Haslam has commuted Brown’s sentence to 15 years served, which will see her released on 7 August this year. However, she will still serve a further 10 years under parole supervision.
It is undoubtedly good news that Brown has been granted clemency, but it’s been a long and very public journey. Her story was first told in 2011, in the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story. Filmmaker Daniel H Birman exposed the treatment of the young offender – and, by extension, other young offenders across the US – over the course of seven years, beginning at the week of her arrest. The film shone a light on Brown’s childhood, which was marred by an abusive grandmother, who had her mother following a rape, and her drug-addicted mother herself.
After 13 years of near-silence from the authorities, it took a Kardashian’s disappointment to wake up those with the power to take action to the injustice served
But it was only in 2017, when Brown was 29 years old and had been imprisoned for 13 years, that her story really hit the public eye. That year, her case was picked up by Twitter via the platform’s most vocal and most popular celebrities – namely, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West. “The system has failed,” tweeted Kardashian West, “It’s heart breaking [sic] to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.” At the time of writing, the tweet has over half a million likes and over 200,000 retweets. Rihanna took to Instagram to show her frustration at Brown’s case, telling her followers: “To each of you responsible for this child's sentence I hope to God you don't have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already!”
In days, her name was known across the world, thanks to a screengrabbed news story summarising Brown’s case. Each celebrity post used the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, which has now been used more than 35,000 times on Instagram alone. Her story was covered by numerous media outlets across the globe, and pressure was placed on Haslam to act on Brown’s sentence – according to reports, several Tennessee Democrats held events to encourage clemency on the young woman’s behalf, alongside the mounting social-media influence.
Before the documentary, and particularly before the celebrity support via the #FreeCyntoiaBrown campaign, Brown’s name was barely known beyond the Tennessee border and more or less unheard of outside America. And while the power of social-media activism should be celebrated, it’s also important to point out that, after 13 years of near-silence from the authorities, it took a Kardashian’s disappointment to wake up those with the power to take action to the injustice served.
It suggests that the success of Brown’s clemency is down to the very nature and ubiquity of social media – that thousands, if not millions, of voices can be heard with just one click of a button. We have seen first-hand, through movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, that a hashtag can shape the global conversation, and perhaps even change the world. But that is a lot of pressure to place on the everyday tweeter – there are people employed and paid a lot of money to do the heavy lifting that young, disadvantaged people like Cyntoia Brown are in dire need of, such as those working across the justice system. Twitter is also a place of trolls, of death threats and promises of rape – particularly for women – and speaking out about a possibly controversial case such as Brown’s could lead to more attacks.
Thankfully, Kim Kardashian-West and Rihanna have platforms big enough to bring light to the injustice seen in Brown’s case, but it shouldn’t have taken their voices to show lawmakers just how misguided the sentencing was. We cannot, and shouldn’t have to, rely on social-media celebrities to serve justice – that’s what judges are for.