NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Cyntoia Brown will leave the Tennessee Prison for Women next week after serving 15 years of a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a Nashville real estate agent.
She was 16 at the time of her crime. Earlier this year, then-Gov. Bill Haslam took the rare step of commuting her sentence, paving the way for her Aug. 7 release.
Brown is now a 31-year-old woman who has been institutionalized for more than half her life. Before she shot a stranger who picked her up at an east Nashville fast food restaurant one warm August evening, she spent two years in facilities operated by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
In the years leading to her release, Brown’s complicated story has served to rally celebrities and lawmakers, juvenile justice reformers and critics of Tennessee’s unusually harsh life sentences for teens, those working to expose child sex trafficking and others highlighting racial inequities in the justice system. Brown is African American.
Next week, Brown will finally have the chance to decide how to tell her own story, on her own terms. She declined through her attorneys to comment for this story.
Her longtime inner circle – including her attorneys, friends and family – also have declined to comment, citing Brown’s desire for privacy.
Kate Watkins, Brown’s college teacher and executive director of Lipscomb University’s LIFE program, which brings college courses to women in prison, said Brown’s coming release made her “thankful and grateful that this story is not going to be wasted, that this young, brave, passionate woman would take this pain and use it for the good of others.”
“It makes me so hopeful,” she said. “I am so confident in her, absolutely confident.”
Brown is not entirely a free woman. Under the terms of her release, she will report to a parole officer regularly for the next 10 years. She must hold down a job, perform community service and participate in counseling.
Brown was sentenced to life in prison in the shooting death of 43-year-old Johnny Allen
.Allen was found dead of a single shot to the back of his head. Brown has never denied pulling the trigger.
Brown said she was sent by her then-24-year-old boyfriend and pimp to make money. According to Brown, Allen picked her up at a Nashville Sonic restaurant, bought her food and then took her to his home. She said he wanted to have sex with her, and intimidated her by pointing out the guns he owned and his experience as a military sharpshooter.
Johnny Allen, 43, was killed by Cyntoia Brown in 2004.Johnny Allen, 43, was killed by Cyntoia Brown in 2004. (Photo: File | Tennessean)Brown shot Allen as he lay in bed, saying she feared he was reaching for a gun.
Allen’s father suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after his son’s death. In a parole hearing last year, Allen’s supporters blamed Brown for causing two deaths and noted Allen was no longer alive to tell his side of the story. They don’t believe Allen propositioned Brown, only that he was trying to help her stay off the streets.
At 16, Brown was given a life sentence. In Tennessee, a sentence of life requires a minimum 51 years behind bars before being considered for parole. Tennessee has the longest minimum sentence in the country for teens and adults who receive a life sentence.
Eight years later, in 2012, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional.
The ruling does not apply in Tennessee because a life sentence includes a possibility of parole after 51 years. Juvenile justice reformers call it a “virtual life sentence.” At least 185 people are now serving life sentences in Tennessee prisons for felony murders committed as teens.
Brown, officially known as inmate No. 00410593 behind bars, earned her associate degree in 2015 and her bachelor’s degree in the Tennessee Prison for Women in May.
She has served as a mentor and advocate for women in prison, herding reluctant female inmates into college classes and leading efforts to bring in education programs for those with limited English, Watkins said.
Inmate Cyntoia Brown, right, of the Tennessee Prison for Women gets a hug from a Lipscomb University faculty member after delivering a commencement address before she received her associate degree from the university on Dec. 18, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)