Cyntoia Brown Granted Clemency

Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s outgoing governor, has granted Cyntoia Brown full clemency.

In 2004, Brown was a 16-year-old living with a man named Garion McGlothen. McGlothen raped and abused Brown; he also forced her into prostitution. It was during this time that she met and then killed Johnny Allen, a man who had raped her. Prosecutors ignored both Brown’s age and the lifetime of abuse she had endured, charging her as an adult and pursuing the maximum possible punishment for her having killed Allen. Prosecutors insisted that Brown had not feared Allen, as she had claimed, and was in fact in no danger. The jury went with the prosecutors, sentencing Brown to life in prison. A Supreme Court decision later clarified that sentencing juveniles to life in prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but after an appeal based upon that clarification, Tennessee’s Supreme Court confirmed that Brown would have to serve at least 51 years of her life sentence before she would be eligible for parole.

Brown was the focus of a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story and subsequently became a cause for some celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian-West. Brown’s case then became a flashpoint in arguments about how the American justice system valued lives, with numerous critics observing that whereas the justice system often bends over backward to excuse away crimes committed by men, it offers no such leniency otherwise. This, then, serves as a step in the right direction.

Brown will be eligible for release on August 7, 2019.

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32 thoughts on “Cyntoia Brown Granted Clemency

    • She’s not being pardoned. She’ll be released to serve a 10-year parole, and is probably also getting transition housing and other assistance. I don’t know Tennessee’s conditions; it seems possible that if parts of the system are overloaded, seven months from the time parole is decided to actual release is normal.

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  1. In 2004, Brown was a 16-year-old living with a man named Garion McGlothen. McGlothen raped and abused Brown; he also forced her into prostitution. It was during this time that she met and then killed Johnny Allen, a man who had raped her.

    While all of this is factually correct, it is written in a way that obscures more than it reveals. I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter replying with takes like “she shouldn’t have spent one day in jail” or, “she should be able to sue the prosecutors and the state of Tennessee should be giving her restitution.” I don’t know if this is because people have absorbed the fuzzy outlines of this case but don’t know the details or because they know the details and simply don’t care. Either way, that’s not justice. The urge to excuse people’s crimes because we like them or have maximum sympathy for their plight is why people like George Zimmerman get off or why it’s so difficult to prosecute cops who break the law.

    And this:

    with numerous critics observing that whereas the justice system often bends over backward to excuse away crimes committed by men, it offers no such leniency otherwise.

    That’s just fiction.

    All of that said, I am happy that Brown has been given clemency. No one should spend life in prison without the possibility of reform for something that he or she did at sixteen. We can do better with our criminal justice system, but I fear that we won’t because so many people still approach this from the lens of who does or doesn’t deserve our sympathy instead of figuring out how to best punish in a way that disincentivizes crime but doesn’t end up in cruelty for cruelty’s sake and that rehabilitates the people who’ve slipped to the margins and offers them a way back into the good graces of society.

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    • She killed the man that raped her. That doesn’t seem debatable.

      As for the idea that our justice system doesn’t routinely bend over backward to excuse away some crimes, you’re gonna have to explain things like mountains of untested rape kits, slaps on the wrist for people like Brock Turner, and the ongoing refusal of anybody take abuse seriously as a problem.

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      • She killed the man that raped her. That doesn’t seem debatable.

        As I said, that is factually correct. So is this: Cyntoia Brown agreed to have sex with a man in exchange for money and later, while the man was sleeping, she shot him in the back of the head, took his money, his guns and his truck and brought them to his pimp.
        That doesn’t seem debatable either. But it doesn’t really tell the whole story, does it? Words are funny that way.

        So yeah. In soliciting a 16yo prostitution, Johnny Mitchell Allen was indeed a statutory rapist. I don’t need to make excuses for that or minimize its seriousness to argue that the appropriate outcome would have been for him to have been arrested and punished through the law and not shot in the back of the head while he slept.

        Likewise, we don’t need to exaggerate the plight of Brown to argue that life behind bars for a 16yo is an unnecessarily harsh and unjust sentence. If we want a better criminal justice system, then outcomes need to be about more than who we have sympathy for and who we want to see punished.

        And if you’re wedded to this story about men always getting the benefit of doubt from the criminal justice system and women never getting it, then you’re going to have to explain how someone like Casey Anthony is walking around free right now. Maybe these things are a lot more complicated than this little gender-based morality tale that you’re trying to spin.

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        • That is debatable because that isn’t what happened. She was raped. She was not in a position to consent or agree or negotiate, both because she was too young to do so, and because she was there with abuse threatened if she wasn’t. If the ask her is that I am obliged to feel sympathy for the man that raped her, no.

          As for the idea that “men always getting the benefit of doubt from the criminal justice system and women never getting it” is what I’m arguing, I’m going to need you to quote where I wrote that. What I have written is that the justice system is remarkably awful at handling abuse, and almost always errs in the same direction: to the benefit of the abuser. The justice system’s failures lead directly to outcomes like this.

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    • That link describes Brown being forced into prostitution, but it doesn’t say anything about it being her then pimp or by Allen. Also, it doesn’t say anything about whether she had sex with Allen or not.

      So, I guess he answer is that, no, you don’t have any citations. You’ve decided on what you think of the case and tried to fit the facts to match your preferred outcome. That’s not justice, in any meaningful sense.

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      • 1. You are currently arguing that Allen took Brown back to his house, then went to bed?

        2. I provided you a link that says clearly that Brown feared for the consequences of what would happen to her if she did not comply. If you’d like to deny her that, please provide us the evidence showing it.

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        • I’m not arguing anything. I’m asking for a citation to the claim that Allen raped Brown. And it appears that you don’t actually have one.

          As an aside, Brown’s original story to the police was exactly that Allen took Brown back to his house and they went to sleep. She claimed that Allen wasn’t a john and hat Brown wasn’t a sex worker, but rather had a habit of finding sympathetic people to give her food and shelter. That story was likely made up so that she wouldn’t have to admit the sex work to police. And Brown’s body was found naked, which suggests sex or some attempt at sex.

          I’m not here to litigate for or against Brown or Allen. I’m just pointing out that you’re version is largely a function of the need to claim that Brown had no culpability in her actions. And I get why you want to do that. I just don’t think that it gets us to a better criminal justice system. It just gets us to fight about which criminals deserve our sympathy and which victims deserve our scorn.

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          • Good luck finding me claiming she has no culpability for her actions. I think she does. I think she defending herself. I think that alone should have cleared her, or, absent that, at leat enough to take the edge off of life in prison.

            But her humanity didn’t matter, which is how she found herself having to hope to get a hailmary to get her out of jail. Only her rapist’s humanity mattered. That’s the point. That’s the injustice.

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            • This just circles back to my original comment about why you chose to describe what happened the way you did.

              You’re talking about “her rapist” and self-defense and yet you can’t provide one citation that proves that they even had sex. Please tell me that you see the problem with that.

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              • By all means, provide us the evidence that Johnny Allen was an upstanding Southern gentleman who just so happened to end up naked with Cyntoia Brown in his home, that totally above board behavior that we have absolutely no reason to be suspicious of.

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                • You just walked into j-r’s argument. Allen doesn’t have to be an upstanding gentleman, just as Brown doesn’t have to be an innocent victim. They can both be serious flawed and still not deserve either of their fates.

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                • Like I said, I get why you don’t want to abandon this rhetoric. But I will point out that over the course of this conversation you’ve gone from claiming that it was an undebatable fact that Allen raped Brown to claiming that I can’t prove that Allen was “an upstanding Southern gentleman.”

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  2. I haven’t seen any evidence at all that McGlothen was guilty of anything other than hiring a young-looking prostitute without asking her for legal proof of age. Granted, regardless of whether you know—even, in fact, if your “victim” has deceived you with fake ID—having sex with a 16-year-old is technically still statutory rape in a minority of US states which includes Tennessee, so it’s technically true to say he “raped” her. Nevertheless, referring to this as an unqualified “rape” in an attempt to obscure the fact that this was, by all accounts, a killing in cold blood, is extremely dishonest.

    Brown’s case then became a flashpoint in arguments about how the American justice system valued lives, with numerous critics observing that whereas the justice system often bends over backward to excuse away crimes committed by men, it offers no such leniency otherwise. This, then, serves as a step in the right direction.

    Seriously? Are you really trying to imply, with a straight face, that the criminal justice system treats men more leniently than women? Research on this is relatively sparse, because academic law and social sciences skew overwhelmingly left and thus aren’t exactly overflowing with people eager to document female privilege, but for example, This study found a large sentencing disparity favoring women. This study finds a sentencing disparity favoring women in sex offenses. Also, although women commit about 10% of homicide, only 1% of prisoners executed since 1976 were women, meaning that a man who commits homicide is about ten times as likely to be executed as a woman who commits homicide.

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    • 1. You mean Allen, not McGlothen. McGlothen was the pimp who was forcing a 16-year-old girl into prostitution.

      2. Allen was “deceived” while engaging in criminal activity is a hell of an argument.

      3. You’re responding to an argument I’m not making. I’m pointing out that the justice system doesn’t take the abuse of women (or children, for that matter) seriously, and it is more often interested in excusing it. This has been thoroughly documented elsewhere but if you’re interested, you can explain away things like the mountains of untested rape kits, the persistent problem of women killed by partners, and the pat-on-the-head sentences handed down to rapists.

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  3. I looked for a link to the last time we discussed this and did not find it.

    So here it is.

    We can now go back to pretending that we cannot comprehend how anyone else could reach any other conclusion than the one that we reached (that assumes things that we cannot possibly know).

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    • We know how the prosecutor and the jurors comprehended an entirely different situation. It involved describing Brown as something she wasn’t and refusing to acknowledge her situation in even the slightest.

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      • It involved describing Brown as something she wasn’t

        There’s that wacky assuming things we can’t know again.

        and refusing to acknowledge her situation in even the slightest.

        This is only a problem when affirmative defenses are not allowed in the courtroom. It’s the job of the defense and the jury to acknowledge her situation. Not the prosecution. (Indeed, if the forensic evidence shows that a dude was shot whilst sleeping, “premeditation” is something that a reasonable person could see a reasonable prosecutor as shooting for.)

        But we already covered this in the thread that you link to.

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  4. I’m definitely more inclined to believe that Sam’s version of the events is closer to reality than j r’s and Brandon’s interpretations. However, j r has a point that treating criminal defendants differently based on your sympathy towards them or their group is not necessarily the best policy for criminal justice. Cynthia might have feared for her life, the prosecutors definitely went insanely overboard by charging her as an adult and ignoring Supreme Court precedent on the subject, but the way Allen was killed did not conform to what the law generally sees as self-defense.

    A more rational prosecutor would have charged Cynthia as a minor and for voluntary manslaughter rather than pre-mediated murder. This way we can take her circumstances into account without letting go of the fact that she did kill somebody, which is something that we really don’t want to encourage even when the dead person is a shitbag of human being. Because of American racism and the general politics of people who become prosecutors we got this travesty.

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    • Quick point of clarification: the Supreme Court ruling came after Brown had already been sentenced. So the prosecutors did not ignore it. (Although they did routinely refer to her as a teen prostitute, which is a hell of a description of a child who cannot consent to sex.)

      As for the rest of it, yes, this would have been an entirely reasonable solution. It would have acknowledged an exceedingly complex situation and the humanity of those involved.

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    • The way to bet is the bad actions were taken by the known bad actors, meaning Kutthroat was the one making the threats, and the source of much of Brown’s trauma.

      Problem is, I don’t see anything which suggests Kutthroat interacted with Allen. Unless we find something dirty about Allen (and to be fair, it’s unclear if anyone has looked), this looks pretty opportunistic. Brown desperately needed money to assuage Kutthroat. Allen was asleep and “rich”. Brown shot him with her gun and took his stuff back to Kutthroat.

      Brown was a low functioning kid way out of her depth. Kutthroat didn’t sell her, instead he made her sell herself. The sex with Allen was consensual as far as Allen knew (Brown claims Allen thought she was young but not underage).

      Obviously all this changes if there really was a gun under the bed, if Allen was paying Kutthroat for her, or whatever. However Brown was already in fear for her life from Kutthroat, she doesn’t need to also have been in fear of life from Allen to explain anything.

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        • She didn’t kill Kut-throat while he was asleep, she killed someone for Kut-throat then brought him the money.

          If memory serves, there are bank robbers who strap bombs to people and then send them into the bank to hold it up. I think we give the walking bomb/note carrier a pass on robbing the bank.

          However Brown’s “defense” was “self defense”. Not Stockholm-from-Kut, not fear of Kut killing her, but actual self defense from Allen-the-monster.

          With that defense Kut-throat almost become irrelevant… so there’s a good chance we’re also looking at incompetence from her defense lawyer.

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    • I’m definitely more inclined to believe that Sam’s version of the events is closer to reality than j r’s and Brandon’s interpretations.

      Just to be clear, I have no “version of events.” I came into the conversation accepting it as fact that Allen had sex with Brown and, therefore, had committed an act of statutory rape. My point was that, in calling him “her rapist,” Sam was trying to frame this as an act of self-defense. But in looking around online for an authoritative version of what happened in that hotel room, what I found was inconclusive. Brown made an initial statement to police after she was arrested and didn’t testify at her own trial. I asked Sam for a citation, because I thought that maybe he had a source that I didn’t find: testimony at an appeal, a deposition, medical evidence of sex, etc.

      My takeaway is that Sam, like a lot of other people, have bought into a narrative of this case Brown is a victim of sex trafficking, who shot her rapist and then filled in the facts to fit that narrative. In this case, it seems to have worked and I’m glad for Brown. But there are a lot of other people in a our jails and prisons who don’t have such a sympathetic narrative, so I’m wary of relying on sympathy as the major impetus for criminal justice reform.

      In general, I find that Sam’s writing on criminal justice matters boil down to something akin tothe people I like and have sympathy for should be treated more leniently by the law and the people that I don’t like should be punished more harshly. And I just don’t think that is a very good model. In fact, I think it’s untenable and just becomes a fight over who should and shouldn’t get our sympathy.

      Separately, I’m wary of the moral panic around “sex trafficking” which I think has the potential to do more harm than good to sex workers, a work in which the marginalized are over-represented. And yea, I understand that a 16yo can’t legitimately be viewed as a sex worker.

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  5. And yea, I understand that a 16yo can’t legitimately be viewed as a sex worker.

    Actually, that part seems sort of shaky to me. Doesn’t that depend on a logic chain that starts with “a minor can’t legally consent to sex”? And then doesn’t that depend on the definition of “minor” and law establishing age of consent, which varies by state?

    Let’s be perfectly honest here, statutory rape is basically like a technical foul. Have sex with someone one minute before midnight on the eve of their birthday and it’s statutory rape. One minute later and it’s not.

    So I’m very uncomfortable with the line of reasoning that [Brown was 16] & [16 < age of consent] therefore [Allen having sex with Brown] = [statutory rape] therefore [Allen raped Brown] & [Brown killing Allen] = [self-defense]. This despite the fact that apparently, by her own testimony, Brown presented herself to Allen as "young, but not underage".

    Would/should our judgement of these facts depend on whether Brown was 16, 17, or 18 at the time? Or on whether the crime[s] had occurred in a different state with laws regarding age of consent? At the end of the day a man was shot in the back of the head for having sex with someone he thought was a young but legal-aged prostitute. Not an admirable act but surely not deserving of the death penalty.

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