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January 7, 2019

Calling her life sentence "too harsh," Tennessee Gov grants commutation to Cyntoia Brown to be paroled after serving 15 years for juve killing

As reported in this local article, "Gov. Bill Haslam ordered an early release for Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman and alleged sex trafficking victim serving a life sentence in prison for killing a man when she was 16."  Here is more about a high-profile clemency grant in a high-profile case:

Haslam granted Brown a full commutation to parole on Monday. Brown will be eligible for release Aug. 7, 15 years after she fatally shot a man in the back of the head while he was lying in bed beside her. She will stay on parole for 10 years.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16," Haslam said in a statement. "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. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”

Brown will be required to participate in regular counseling sessions and to perform at least 50 hours of community service, including working with at-risk youth. She also will be required to get a job.

In a statement released by her lawyers, Brown thanked Haslam "for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me." "With God's help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."

The governor's long-awaited decision, handed down during his last days in office, brought a dramatic conclusion to Brown's plea for mercy, which burst onto the national stage as celebrities and criminal justice reform advocates discovered her case. In his commutation, the governor called Brown's case one that "appears to me to be a proper one for the exercise of executive clemency." "Over her more than fourteen years of incarceration, Ms. Brown has demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation," the commutation said.

It was a remarkable victory for Brown after years of legal setbacks. Brown said she was forced into prostitution and was scared for her life when she shot 43-year-old Johnny Allen in the back of the head while they were in bed together. Allen, a local real estate agent, had picked her up at an East Nashville Sonic restaurant and taken her to his home.

Brown, now 30, was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder in 2006. She was given a life sentence. Had Haslam declined to intervene, Brown would not have been eligible for parole until she was 69. The state parole board, which considered Brown's case in 2018, gave the governor a split recommendation, with some recommending early release and some recommending she stay in prison....

In recent years, celebrities have highlighted her case, fueling intense interest and a renewed legal fight to get her out of prison. Activists, lawmakers and celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, have cited Brown's case as an illustration of a broken justice system. Brown was a victim herself, they said, and didn't deserve her punishment.

The Gov's official press release on this decision is available at this link.

January 7, 2019 at 04:30 PM | Permalink


one wonders how accurate her story is---the victim cannot speak for himself

Posted by: federalist | Jan 8, 2019 8:06:46 AM

My problem here isn't the fact that a life sentence for a 16 year old is too harsh, my problem is that 15 years for a cold-blooded premeditated killing is much too slight. She is in effect only serving 30% of her sentence, that is one hell of a reduction. i don't think most appeals courts would look kindly on a such a large downward variance.

If he had said 25 or even 20 it would have made it easier to swallow. But this act of clemency strikes me as an overcompensation.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 8, 2019 12:48:40 PM

This is a juvenile defendant with significant mitigation. I'm not sure the new sentence is inappropriate, but the mitigation was not a legal defense to the charge and I'm unsympathetic to claims along those grounds. 15 years does not strike me as too slight because that's still an incredibly long period of time to spend incarcerated, but it is minimal based on typical American sentences.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 8, 2019 1:04:48 PM

Seems like there is a growing consensus that we generally need to reduce sentences. There is, of course, no point from a rational perspective, in life without parole or 50-year sentences, except for those who (on after parole hearings) are found to still be dangerous. Lots of violent criminals will no longer be dangerous after 10 or 15 years. Other nations seem to be able to do just fine with much lower sentences -- with much lower crime rates. The burden should be on the Government to show why someone needs to be incarcerated for decades. I am tired of hearing about victims rights, blah, blah, blah. Heavy sentences, of course, don't bring anyone back, so why should we care about the vindictive views of some (not all) victims or their families. Again, other nations manage to avoid allowing concern about victims rights to warp outcomes.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 8, 2019 3:28:05 PM


I don't see it as a matter of "doing fine". I see it much more of a matter of granting the desire of those who don't want the benefits of society to get their wish.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 8, 2019 6:15:36 PM

How exactly one can be scared for one's life while pointing a gun at someone who is lying down and facing away from one is a mystery to me. And she stole from him after shooting him. Hell, no, I don't buy her story.

Brown was indeed a victim, but the man who unquestionably did victimize her was not the man she murdered.

It seems to me that what happened here is that Ms. Brown was able to use the fact that she was victimized in ways that appeal to the PC crowd to get herself a second chance.

Employees at her prison are saying she has transformed herself. So, although I don't like the fact that she got this new chance, she may actually use it the right way. At least one can hope.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jan 9, 2019 6:39:36 AM


Isn’t your last sentence in internal tension? If the is there is a good chance she will use the chance well, why not give her the chance? That is exactly why LWOP or very long sentences without opoortunity for review post-hoc make no sense.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 9, 2019 11:50:15 AM

Definitely internal tension. The bottom line is that I am convinced by the evidence of the deterrent effect of America's harsh punishments for murder. Given a choice between additional punishment for murderers on the one hand, or a higher murder rate on the other hand, I choose additional punishment for murderers.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jan 10, 2019 6:58:13 PM

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