By Michael Sainato

Nov. 28, 2017

Last week, the story of Cyntoia Brown went viral after several celebrities, including Rihanna and LeBron James, shared a brief summary of what happened to her as her lawyers prepare to argue the case before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals early next year.

“The court will be asked by our team to consider the constitutionality of the 51-year sentence for a child,” her lawyer Charles Bone told ABC News.

Brown’s case reflects a trend in the United States’ Criminal Justice system, where juveniles are often tried as adults, with charges and sentences failing to reflect the circumstances and context surrounding the criminal charges.

The United States has one of the highest rates of incarcerated youth in the world. Every state in the U.S. permits juveniles to be tried under adults, though only 17 states have banned child offenders from serving life sentences without parole. An estimated 5,000 juveniles are held in adult prisons throughout the United States at any given time. The 2005 Roper v. Simmons Supreme Court decision found that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death. In 2010, a subsequent ruling in Graham v. Florida found that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole besides homicide convictions. The 2012 Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama found life sentences without parole for juveniles to be unconstitutional.

In Tennessee, juveniles convicted of first degree murder are required to serve 60 years in prison before parole, with an option to reduce that sentence to 51 years until parole. This is the sentence Cyntoia Brown received after she was arrested in 2004. She won’t be eligible for parole until she is 69 years old.

Brown’s case is unique given that a documentary film crew was present to record the entirety of Tennessee’s court proceedings at work. “We recorded something on the order of 130 hours of footage between the family of Cyntoia Brown, the attorneys, the psychiatrist and so on,” said Daniel Birman, the Director and Creator of the documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” in an interview. “I wanted to get my head around juvenile violence. How is it that kids can end up being violent? Why does that happen? “

The question had occupied Birman since sometime around the turn of the century. But it didn’t have a focus. “Cyntoia Brown became the focus of my energy when I met her, within a day or two after her arrest. And even though the documentary was completed in 2011, we’ve continued to process and in fact we’ve documented much more than that which is in the documentary, and we’re continuing our efforts,” he said.  

In 2004, when she was 16, Cyntoia Brown ran away from her adopted family and ended up with a 24 year old drug dealer and pimp named CutThroat. After weeks of subjecting Brown to sexual abuse and rape at gunpoint, he reportedly demanded Brown go out onto the streets to prostitute herself. On the streets, she encountered 43 year old Johnny Allen, who picked her up in his truck at a Sonic Drive-In in Nashville and brought her to his home. According to Brown, Allen showed her guns he owned and then took her to his bedroom where he began groping her. Brown became frightened, grabbed a gun and shot Allen when she thought he was reaching for a weapon. She fled after taking money and guns from Allen to return to CutThroat.

Only recently has Tennessee and other states begun viewing prostitution, especially of minors, as sex trafficking. When Brown was initially convicted, sex work was criminalized to a greater degree than its consumers, and courts did not often consider whether a defendant was forced into it.   

Juvenile Court Judge Betty Green Adams decided to transfer Brown’s case to an adult court. “The reason she was treated as an adult for that crime is very, very simple,” explained Birman.  “Our justice system typically does not know what to do with a juvenile because the juvenile justice system can usually only hold onto a child until they’re 19 years of age.”


Brown was convicted of first degree murder and aggravated robbery. Since PBS first released Birman’s documentary in 2011, a team of lawyers have fought on behalf of Brown to have her sentence appealed, for the state supreme court to hear the case, and for the Tennessee Governor to grant clemency for her sentence. Though Brown will be eligible for parole at the age of 67, her sentence is viewed by prison reform advocates as virtually a life sentence given that incarceration has been correlated to shortened life expectancy. While in prison, Brown has completed her Associate’s Degree from Lipscomb University through an in jail education program, and now on track to obtain her Bachelor’s. Her attorneys are hoping to push for a change in Tennessee laws that would grant her and other juveniles in similar circumstances to have a 15 or 20 year mandatory review of sentencing.

Earlier this year, Birman’s film company completed a series, Sentencing Children, with PBS and the Tennessean, that continues to use Brown’s story to highlight the issues and need for reform within the juvenile criminal justice system.

“This is an ongoing discussion that needs to be had. And I think we’re in a unique position to do this because in the case of Cyntoia’s story, what we managed to do that I don’t think had ever been done before, is we truly watched a process from beginning to end in terms of how a child goes through the system,” said Birman. “So the question then is what do we learn from this? What do we learn from the process that can help us be better communicators and be better at getting the message out about the disparity in juvenile justice?”

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