Last week, 31-year-old Cyntoia Brown walked out of the Tennessee Prison for Women after spending nearly half her life behind bars. As a 16-year-old runaway and sex-trafficking victim, Brown killed a 43-year-old man in Nashville who took her home for sex. She was tried as an adult and convicted of murder and aggravated robbery. The judge gave Brown a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 51 years. But in prison, she became a Christian and turned her life around.
Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, had a week and a half left in his term when he granted Brown clemency in January. He said her sentence was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”
In prison, Brown earned her GED diploma and an associate’s degree and started working on her bachelor’s degree. She participated in a Tennessee Department of Corrections program that paired her with Christian mentors from a local church, and she counseled at-risk young people for the state’s juvenile justice system.
Meanwhile, Brown’s case drew national attention. As juvenile justice reform became a hot topic, more and more people insisted Haslam revisit her case. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna tweeted about Brown and made the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown popular. Not everyone agreed though: In 2017, the lead detective who investigated the murder wrote a detailed letter arguing that Brown should remain in prison.
Her first public defender, Kathy Sinback, said when she told Brown the news of her clemency, “She just lit up with a joy I’ve never seen before.” Brown released a statement in response: “We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without him. Let today be a testament to his saving grace.”
Under the current agreement, Brown will be on parole for the next 10 years, provided she meets certain conditions like employment and regular counseling. Before her release, Brown married Christian rapper J. Long, who posted a photo on Instagram of them together. Her publicist, Wes Yoder, said she asked him not to schedule any interviews yet, but on Monday he wrote in an email, “I can confirm that she attended church and received communion as a free woman for the first time yesterday here in Nashville.” —C.K.