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Child Sex Trafficking Victim Jailed for Killing an Abuser Gains Support

Cyntoia Brown reacts during her hearing in November 2012, during which her attorneys argued that she deserved a new trial after her 2006 conviction. (Jae S. Lee / AP)

The story of a Tennessee teen who was instrumental in the rewriting of the state’s human trafficking laws has gone viral, gaining national support for her case. Cyntoia Brown, a former child sex trafficking victim, is currently serving a life sentence after she was convicted in 2006 of killing one of her abusers in 2004, when she was only 16 years old. Internet activists have this week renewed interest in her case by spreading the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.

A documentary about Brown’s case, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” gained national attention when it first aired on PBS in 2011. While it is unclear exactly why her case is back in the public eye now—though it is likely in part from the attention from celebrities like Rihanna—her story has revived national concern about the difficulty that child sex trafficking victims face in navigating the criminal justice system.

According to The Huffington Post:

Cyntoia Brown was only sixteen years old when she was trafficked by a pimp who called himself “Cut-throat.” Cyntoia suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, a birth defect caused by her birthmother’s excessive consumption of alcohol during her pregnancy. The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome include intellectual disabilities that affect a person’s ability to think rationally and appreciate the consequences of her conduct, as well as neurological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Cyntoia came from a broken home, and as a young teenager she began abusing alcohol and drugs. She eventually ran away. By the time she took up with Cut-throat, she had already been the victim of several rapes and physical abuse. She and Cut-throat lived in a motel room, which, along with his drug habit, Cyntoia paid for by selling sex. Cut-throat was physically and verbally abusive, and he threatened to find Cyntoia if she ever left him.

“He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” Brown told a judge in 2012 during an appeal hearing.

Brown was picked up one night by a 43-year-old man who took to his home and showed her his gun collection, bragging about being an expert marksman. Fearing, she said, that the man was preparing to kill her, she used a gun given to her by Cut-throat for protection to shoot him in the back of the head. Later, she took two of his guns back for Cut-throat.

Brown was tried as an adult, and though she claims she feared for her life when she fired the fatal shot, prosecutors in the murder trial argued that her intent was robbery. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she is not eligible for parole until she is 67. At an appeal hearing in 2012, Nashville attorney Charles Bone and other attorneys argued that Brown deserved a new trial on the grounds that her original trial was deficient because she had been advised not to testify. According to NewsOK:

Her current attorneys believe that advice was given based on a misconception about the law.

“I wanted to testify. My family thought I should testify,” Brown, now 24, said on Tuesday. If she had, the jury likely would have heard something like what she next told the judge. …

Although Brown has a high IQ, Adler said that testing last year showed her to be functioning [psychologically, in some respects] at the level of a 13 or 14 year old.

Brown’s attorneys argued that was evidence that should have been presented at her original trial.

Others, like state Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Nashville, have also pushed for Brown’s release. The New York Times reports:

(Faison) visited Ms. Brown in 2015 on a friend’s recommendation, and has since been pushing for her early release. They speak about four times per year on the phone, he said.

“I was amazed at the person I met,” he said. “She was kind, intelligent, she had a disposition or presence about her that was just amazing.”

He described Ms. Brown as “extremely remorseful,” but said she also thinks “it was unjust what had happened in her life, and what a 40-year-old man was doing to her.”

Mr. Bone said his client hopes to focus her energy on combating sex trafficking.

“Seldom do you have someone as articulate as she is, with the ability to say: ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I want to speak out, to let the world know that this is indeed an awful problem,’ ” he said.

The nationwide outrage that Brown’s case inspired played a part in a change in Tennessee law in 2011. Now, anyone under the age of 18 cannot be charged for prostitution; rather, they are seen as too young to consent to sex. Some Tennessee activists are trying to change state laws so that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Brown remains in prison, where she has been called a “model prisoner” and is pursuing higher education.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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