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Cyntoia Brown-Long on Surviving Sex Trafficking and Winning Freedom

At 16, Brown-Long was convicted of murder for shooting a man who picked her up for sex when she feared for her life.

At the age of 16, she was arrested for killing a man who had picked her up for sex, after she had been forced into sexual slavery as a child. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for shooting the man who bought her for sex when she feared for her life. Today Cyntoia Brown-Long joins us to share her experience of what has happened in the 15 years she was incarcerated, and how she won her release. In an incredible development, after a years-long campaign to win her freedom, Cyntoia was granted clemency in January after former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted her sentence. She was released from prison in August. We spend the hour discussing her experience as she recounts in her memoir, published this week, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.


AMY GOODMAN: At the age of 16, she was arrested for killing a man who had picked her up for sex after she had been forced into sexual slavery as a child. She was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her rapist. Today Cyntoia Brown-Long joins us to share her experience, what’s happened in the 15 years since she was incarcerated, and how she won her release.

In an incredible development, Cyntoia was granted clemency in January, after former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted her sentence for murdering 43-year-old Johnny Allen, an estate agent who took her to his home for sex in 2004. Cyntoia says Allen was behaving erratically and owned a number of guns, and that she feared for her life when she shot him in the head and made her escape. At the time, she was being sexually trafficked and repeatedly abused and drugged and forced into prostitution by a pimp nicknamed “Kutthroat.”

She was just 16 years old at the time of the shooting, but she was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in 2006 without the possibility for parole until 2055. Juveniles in Tennessee who are sentenced to life in prison must spend at least 51 years behind bars. Cyntoia’s case drew widespread attention on social media under the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Pop superstar Rihanna wrote, “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” After her repeated appeals in the case were denied, Cyntoia spoke at her clemency hearing in January.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: I can’t make up for what I did, but they’ve given me a chance to do so much more, you know. I’ve been able to help people, which is amazing. Young people, young kids. They listen. …

And I’m still going to try to help people. I still am, because it’s something that people need to understand. It’s something people need to know. There are so many things that I understand now that I didn’t know. And there are so many young people that still don’t know. And I feel called to share that.

And whatever you decide, I respect it, but, I mean, I do pray that you show me mercy and that you give me a second chance. That is my prayer. And I can assure each and every one of you that if you do, like, I won’t disappoint you. I’m not going to let you down.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cyntoia Brown-Long speaking in January. She was ultimately granted clemency and released from prison in August. She is now 31 years old. This week, she published a book about her experience. She’s doing her first interviews. Her memoir is titled Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.

Cyntoia Brown-Long, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: So you are sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 years old. If you would go back in time and tell us what happened on the night of August 7th, 2004, what led to, well, everything that has happened now, although there was so much before it?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, on the night of August 7th, I was involved with a man by the name of Kutthroat, as you mentioned, and I was going out meeting with men, having sex for money. And one of the men that had picked me up was a 43-year-old man, as you said, a real estate agent. And he took me back to his home, just started acting really, like, strange. I started to feel like I was in a situation that I just couldn’t get out of, although I just kind of just wanted to just leave, felt very uncomfortable. Was showing off his guns, things like that. Things just really escalated, and it came to a point where I shot him. I felt that something was about to happen to me. I left, went back to the room.

AMY GOODMAN: Got in his pickup truck.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: Right, got in his pickup truck — that was the only way I could go back — and went back to the hotel room that I had shared with Kutthroat. About within 24 hours, the police had come and arrested me. I spoke with them freely. I felt that, you know, I had defended myself, so I didn’t have anything to hide. Next thing I know, I’m being charged with criminal homicide. So…

AMY GOODMAN: How much can you understand as a — at the time, you were 16?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: Right, at the time, I was 16. I really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that I was in, the situation that led to me being arrested. And then, of course, the entire arrest process, the charging process, I didn’t get it. And whenever the detective had spoken with me before I went into the confession room, you know, he kind of just said, “Talking to me is going to be the difference between nine years and 99 years.” So, choice to me was obvious.

AMY GOODMAN: No lawyer with you.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: Right, no lawyer, no parent. At the time, I did tell them that I was 19, because that’s what Kut had told me to say if the police ever got me. You know, couldn’t tell them I was 16. However, they did find out, after the fact, that I was 16 years old. Still didn’t attempt to try to call my parents, try to call a lawyer, anything like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Take us back, because you’re referring to Kutthroat, a man you’ve come to see in a very different way than you did as a child.


AMY GOODMAN: Even though what happened that night leads to your sentence of life in prison, I want you to go back in your own life now and tell us about where you were born and what led you to the point you were on that fateful night.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, I was born on Fort Campbell — it’s a military base — raised in a military community, very supportive community. My family was very supportive. My mother is a teacher. My father, he’s retired military. Had pretty much everything that I needed as a child. But, you know, I would go to school, and other kids started pointing out that I was different from my parents. I was different from other people, didn’t really feel like I fit in anywhere, was kind of treated as an outcast and started to develop behavior problems, attitude problems. The school labeled me as “the bad kid.” Started finding out that teachers wanted to just get rid of me. They would put me in ISS for the littlest of things, little smart remarks that just natural for certain kids. Found myself in alternative school, around the wrong crowd. You know, alternative schools are pretty much like schools’ version of prison. You know, it’s just somewhere to just toss kids.

AMY GOODMAN: In sixth grade, you were tossed out of school?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: Right, right, sixth grade. So, started getting in deeper with different things, started skipping school, actually wound up catching my first charge with some of the other kids that I had met at alternative school. And then I entered into the juvenile justice system. So, pretty much downhill from the time that I entered alternative school. From juvenile justice system, I started running from state custody, from the facilities that they had placed me in. And I started staying on the streets in Nashville. And I was on the streets in Nashville with the people that I had met from running away, whenever I was introduced to Kut.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Kutthroat was.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, Kutthroat, he — I had known him just for a few weeks, just for a few weeks. And I had met him right after I had been raped for the first time. Lot was going on. And I had always wanted acceptance from other people. I had always wanted to be seen as though I belonged somewhere. And so it was rather quickly that I found myself just drawn to him. I felt that, you know, he listened to me in ways that no one else listened to me. I really felt in my head that I was in a relationship with this man. And so, when it came time for him to say, “We need money for this, we need money for a hotel, and this is what you can do,” it was like, “OK, I’m going to do this, because I love this person, and I’m just contributing to the relationship” — completely unhealthy thought patterns that I had developed from actually being on the run, learning unhealthy behaviors, unhealthy understanding of sexual relationships. I really had come to see my body as, you know, a good, to be traded for shelter, for food, for money, for the things that I needed to get by. So, with all those seeds that were already planted, it was — his work was, you know, already done.

AMY GOODMAN: He drew a gun on you.


AMY GOODMAN: He strangled you.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, it didn’t start out that way, naturally. I don’t know many people that would stay in a situation where it starts out that way. Of course, they always start out nice, very charming. And, you know, then it would lead to — he would just snatch me up a little, just shake me up, guns with lectures. And when I say “lectures,” I mean like hours on end spent telling me, you know, “You’re nothing but a slut. No one will ever want you but me.” And, you know, in my mind, I was like, “This is not true.” But you’ve got to think like how that’s really just sinking into me. I was already in a low place.

And, you know, there was times that — one time he actually had choked me until I passed out. Like, the man could have really killed me. That was actually on the night right before I had met Mr. Allen, the man that I had ended up shooting. I had really come to expect violence from men. And I really think that that played a big role in what happened that night. And it would take years for me to really just unpack everything, to just really process all the trauma that I had really built up.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you come to understand you had been placed in the foster care system as an infant?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, I was never placed in the foster care system. I was actually adopted directly from my biological mother. So she had actually asked the family that I was with to take care of me. She was incarcerated. She was in and out of jail. And they adopted me directly from her, so I was never placed in foster care.

AMY GOODMAN: And when did they explain that — your parents, explain that to you?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: So, I found that out, I guess I was like 5, whenever I had started school. And, you know, I was in the classroom. Your parents bring you to school because it’s the first day of class. And as the teacher is talking with my mom and dad, I’m playing with the other kids, and I can remember one of the other little boys, he had asked me, you know, why don’t I look like my parents. My mother has dark skin; my father, as well. And, you know, I had never really thought about it. I didn’t feel any different. Mommy and Poppy, they had never treated me any different, so there was no reason for me to like really know that I was different. And one question led to other questions to a full-blown interrogation from kids. That’s just what they do. You know, one answer is never good enough.

So, I remember getting in the car with my mother after class, and, you know, I asked her. And she explained to me that I was mixed and that I was adopted. And there was — introduced this idea of this mystery woman that I came from. And that kind of just set up this lens for me where I just started feeling like, “Oh, well, I really don’t fit here, do I? And I don’t fit here, either.” And so, it was just a seed that had been planted.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the moment when you were in one facility or school, and your parents couldn’t come to pick you up, so they sent a family friend who had been sexually abusing you.

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: Well, he hadn’t been sexually abusing me; he had made an inappropriate comment. So, I was actually — I had come back from court, from the facility. The court didn’t tell my parents that I was having court that day. They just brought me up from the detention center, and they were going to release me. Well, my mother, she was at work, and she couldn’t just leave. She didn’t have a substitute. She called my father. My father had already left. He was driving trucks at the time. And he had called his friend to come pick me up. And this —

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?

CYNTOIA BROWNLONG: I was 12? Twelve, about to be 13, or maybe I was 13, somewhere in there. I think it was 13, actually. So, I think that happened in March. So, 13 years old. And he had called this friend to pick me up. This friend, I was previously on a trip with him, whenever my parents had gone out of town for their anniversary. And the people that we were with had sent me out to go tell him to come inside, to come into the cabin, because dinner was ready. And whenever I went out, he was sitting in his truck with his leg hanging out, door open. He was on the phone with someone. And whenever I said, “Hey, it’s time to eat,” he had spoken to the person on the phone. He was like, “Yeah, it’s my homeboy’s daughter. She’s one of those girls that’s developed in all the right places.”

And, you know, I have been raised on Lifetime movies, so I knew, like, there are certain trigger words that were just not OK. You know, my mother made sure that I understood that. And so, you know, I slammed the door on his leg. I ran inside, and I told the group that I was with, you know, what had happened. And I’m expecting like, you know, they’re finna go in on this man, like this is not OK. But the reaction that I got was, he walks in, and they just hand him a plate of steak, and everybody just sits and talks normally. And so, it was like, “Wait a minute. Like, you know, Mom always told me that I needed to tell someone, I needed to speak up about things. And I do it, and nothing happens.”

So, fast-forward all these months later, and he comes to court to pick me up. Well, when I tell the woman at court, the clerk, “I’m not going with him. I don’t feel comfortable leaving with him, being alone with this man,” she tells the judge, and the judge says, “Fine. We’ll put you in state custody.” And state custody is the worst fear of every kid who’s been involved in the juvenile justice system, because it’s the most severe punishment they can give you. For me, being 13 years old, that meant that they can hold me up until I was 19 years old, because it’s an indeterminate sentence. And so, it’s like, “Wait, like, I’m being punished now? Like, I was going to get to go home, but because I don’t feel comfortable around this man and I spoke up about it, now I can’t go home?” So, definitely — definitely wasn’t healthy. Definitely didn’t teach me that, you know, it was a good thing to speak up for myself, it was a good thing to advocate for myself. Taught me the exact opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. We’re talking to Cyntoia Brown-Long. She’s a sex trafficking survivor who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder. In January of this year, the former Tennessee governor granted her clemency, and she’s just gotten out of prison. This is one of her first post-prison interviews. We’ll continue with her, learn what happened at her first trial and then beyond, and how a child gets sentenced as an adult. Stay with us.

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