Updated: Thursday August 8th 7:50 A.M.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Cyntoia Brown was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women on Wednesday after serving 15 years for killing a man who bought her for sex. And now that she’s out, experts say the 31-year-old will have an even stronger voice in the fight against sex trafficking.
“This woman has spent almost half of her life in prison,” says Dr. Sherry Blake, a nationally-recognized clinical psychologist. “She’s had a long time to think and to really understand her role. As a result, she can be a very valuable, priceless person to speak on behalf of other young girls in the sex trafficking industry.”
In 2004, Brown killed Johnny Mitchell Allen, who according to court documents and testimony, had solicited her for sex and taken her back to his house. Prosecutors at the time said Brown shot Allen in the head while he was sleeping and stole from him: money, guns, his truck. They argued the killing was motivated by robbery, not self-defense.
Brown said she was scared for her life by Allen’s behavior, and took money because she was afraid of returning to her pimp empty-handed.
A juvenile court found Brown competent to be tried as an adult. She was convicted of murder and robbery, and sentence to life in prison.
However, Brown’s case drew the attention of several high-profile advocates, including a US congressman, several Tennessee lawmakers and a number of celebrities. Comedian Amy Schumer, reality star Kim Kardashian West and actress Ashley Judd were among those who called for Brown’s release.
“Cyntoia Brown was a victim of child sex trafficking, raped and forced into paid sexual exploitation to stay alive,” Judd tweeted in a plea to then-Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency. “She deserves our empathy and your mercy.”
Haslam granted it. In January, his office announced that Brown would be released to parole supervision on Aug. 7.
“This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case,” Haslam said in a statement. “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.”
While in prison, Brown has focused on transforming herself, as well as helping others. She mentors troubled youth, and is planning a nonprofit that will provide them with further assistance. Brown received her associate degree from Lipscomb University in 2015, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in the Tennessee Prison for Women in May.
Brown’s trial inspired a documentary – “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” – that eventually helped to alter the way Tennessee deals with sex trafficking victims, particularly those who are juveniles.
“I learned that my life was – and is – not over,” Brown said in the documentary. “I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.”
Samantha Morgan-Curtis, associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at Tennessee State University, says Brown’s transformation and the impact her case has had on sex trafficking, give her a powerful, credible voice.
“She is at this nexus where she has brought attention to an ongoing problem, which is how can we help these victims, and not blame these victims,” says Morgan-Curtis. “And I hope that folks listen to her.”
Brown, who has a book scheduled to be published in October, released a statement via her attorney a few days before her release that said in part:
“I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation. I thank (former) Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me, and with the Lord’s help, I will make them, as well as the rest of my supporters, proud.”