Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman who was convicted as a teenager for shooting a man who picked her up while she was a victim of sex-trafficking, must remain in prison for at least 51 years before she is eligible for release, Tennessee’s Supreme Court said Thursday.
The court’s opinion was in response to a lawsuit that argues that Brown’s life sentence is unconstitutional due to a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that said mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles violates the U.S. Constitution.
In response to the court’s opinion, the Women’s March on Saturday announced a nationwide march in support of Brown and other sex-trafficking victims to be held on Jan. 19.
Brown was 16 years old in 2004 when she killed real estate agent Johnny Allen, 43. At the time, Brown had run away from home and was living with her 24-year-old boyfriend, a pimp known as “Kut Throat,” who raped her and forced her into prostitution, according to Brown’s lawyers.
According to court documents, Allen solicited Brown for sex, then brought her back to his home and showed her his guns. Later in bed, Brown said, she thought Allen was reaching for his gun to shoot her, so she grabbed a handgun from her purse and shot him first.
Brown then removed money from Allen’s wallet, took his guns and drove his truck to a Walmart, the court documents said.
Brown was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder and especially aggravated robbery and was sentenced to life in prison for Allen’s death in 2006. She was also diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome in 2012.
Tennessee’s Supreme Court on Thursday said that, under the state’s law, defendants like Brown who were convicted of first-degree murder after July 1, 1995, can only be released from prison after serving at least 51 years of their sentences.
Brown has described her life sentence as a “cruel and unusual punishment,” pointing to the 2012 Supreme Court ruling on mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, according to court documents.
But a U.S. District Court in Tennessee denied Brown’s motion, noting that she received a “life sentence, not a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
Brown has appealed that decision, which is pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Brown’s case was thrust into the spotlight after PBS debuted a documentary on her, titled “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” in 2011. In recent years, celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna, have rallied in support of Brown and raising awareness around Brown as a victim of sex-trafficking.
Kardashian West has recruited her lawyers to help free Brown. The reality star met with President Donald Trump in May to discuss prison and sentencing reform.
“The system has failed,” Kardashian tweeted in November 2017. “It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.”
After the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling made headlines, Brown’s advocates pointed out how white men and women who commit crimes are handed lighter sentences than people of color.
Millionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, 54, was accused of trafficking minor girls and coercing them into sex acts in his mansion for at least six years, according to police. He was sentenced to just 13 months in prison.
This story has been updated with more details of Brown’s case.