Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, in one of his last acts in office, has granted clemency to 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown, who has spent the last 14 years behind bars for shooting and killing a man. Brown, who was tried as an adult as a 16-year-old, said she was forced into sex work and feared for her life when she killed 43-year-old Johnny Allen in August 2004.
According to the Tennessean, Haslam’s commutation means Brown could be released as early as Aug. 7 on time served. After that, Brown will stay on parole for the next 10 years.
Had Haslam not commuted her sentence, Brown wouldn’t have been eligible for parole until she was 69 years old.
In his statement, Governor Haslam wrote that Brown had “demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation.”
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said. “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.”
During her time in prison, Brown both completed her GED and received her associate’s degree from Lipscomb University.
But it was the circumstances of Brown’s conviction that had many social justice advocates and supporters petitioning Haslam to commute her sentence. Brown told authorities she was trapped into sex work and was a victim of child sex trafficking at the time she killed Allen, who had picked up the then-16-year-old Brown from a Sonic Drive-In. She shot Allen while the two were in bed together; Brown claimed self-defense, while prosecutors argued Brown was trying to rob the real estate agent, WKRN reports.
As news of her case spread, thanks in part to social media campaigns and boosts by celebrities like Rihanna and Gabrielle Union, many pointed out that Brown was herself a victim and deserved the state’s protection.
Her harsh sentence—particularly in light of her own vulnerability—served as a stark reminder of many how black women and girls are disproportionately punished by the criminal justice system.
In his statement, Haslam laid out the conditions for Brown’s release. She will be required to get a job, take regular counseling sessions and perform a minimum of 50 hours of community service, which would include working with at-risk youth, the Tennessean writes.
Brown is currently working on completing her bachelor’s degree, and those close to Brown say she plans to set up her own nonprofit to advocate for social justice issues.