A woman serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a Nashville man who solicited her for sex must serve at least 51 years in prison before she’s eligible for parole, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court’s opinion comes in response to a lawsuit filed by plaintiff Cyntoia Brown arguing that her life sentence is unconstitutional, citing a 2012 opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, HuffPost reported. Brown, now 30, was just 16 years old when she was convicted of killing Johnny Mitchell Allen in 2004 after he picked her up and took her to his home for sex.
The court’s five judges were unanimous in their decision Thursday, ruling that defendants convicted of first-degree murder committed after July 1, 1995 and sentenced to life in lock-up must serve at least five decades before being considered for release. In a statement, the Tennessee Supreme Court said that “under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years.”
“However, the 60-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 percent, or nine years, by earning various sentence credits,” including recognition for good behavior and involvement in educational or vocational programs, it continued.
According to Brown’s lawyers, the teen ran away from home after suffering a tough childhood and was forced into sex trafficking/prostitution by her 24-year-old boyfriend at the time. At her trial, Brown testified that Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, solicited her for sex and took her back to his place.
There, Brown noticed a gun cabinet and said she feared for her life when she saw Allen reach under the bed for something. Believing he was going to kill her, the teen pulled a handgun out of her purse and shot him first.
Prosecutors tried Brown as an adult and convicted her of first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery, handing her a life sentence for Allen’s death.
Brown’s case made headlines more than a decade after her sentencing, thanks in part to a PBS documentary on her life entitled “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” back in 2011. A-list celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg, rallied on Brown’s behalf and called for changes to the criminal justice system.
“Did we somehow change the definition of ‘Justice’ along the way?” Rihanna wrote in an Instagram post. “‘Cause something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child’s sentence, I hope to God you do not have children because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already! #FreeCyntoiaBrown #HowManyMore”
Over the years, Brown has described her sentence as “cruel and unusual punishment” and pointed to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling arguing that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles violate the Constitution. Court documents show a district court denied her motion, however, noting that she only received a life sentence — not life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In May, a Tennessee parole board was divided on whether to grant her clemency, with only two of six board members voting to release Brown.
Brown has appealed her case, which is now pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.