Skip to content Skip to footer

Finally, Clemency for Sexual Violence Survivor Cyntoia Brown

Anti-incarceration organizer Mariame Kaba discusses the years of pressure that yielded clemency for Cyntoia Brown.

Cyntoia Brown was granted full clemency by Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Monday after serving 15 years in prison. The decision follows months of intense public pressure and outrage over her case. Brown was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her rapist as a teenager. She had been repeatedly abused and drugged. The shooting happened when Brown was just 16 years old, but she was tried as an adult. We speak with Mariame Kaba, organizer and educator who has worked on anti-domestic violence programs, anti-incarceration and racial justice programs since the late 1980s.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the story of Cyntoia Brown, who on Monday was granted full clemency by Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam after serving 15 years in prison. The decision follows months of intense public pressure and outrage over her case.

Brown was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her rapist as a teenager. She had been sexually trafficked, repeatedly abused and drugged. The shooting happened when Brown was just 16 years old, but she was tried as an adult.

This is Cyntoia Brown speaking at her clemency hearing in May.

CYNTOIA BROWN: It’s been a very long time. And when I was 16, I did a horrible thing. And I have carried that with me this whole time. …

You always hear people say, like, “If I could go back and if I could change things,” but when you really realize that you’ve done something you can’t undo, like, it stays with you. And it’s stayed with me this whole time. And that people here today that, like, I hurt, they’re hurting now, 14 years later. They’ve been hurting for 14 years, and I did that. And I can’t fix it. I can’t fix it. …

Like, I had to change, because I could not live with myself being the same person that did that. I couldn’t do that. I can’t face that. …

You know, 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: Cyntoia Brown. Her attorney, Houston Gordon, addressed reporters shortly after Brown was granted clemency Monday.

J. HOUSTON GORDON: Her story, though, is a story that should be a catalyst for a lot of others, thousands of other juveniles. We need to see this as a national awakening to change the draconian laws that allow juveniles, children, to be placed in adult prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the years, Cyntoia Brown’s case drew widespread attention on social media under the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Pop star Rihanna wrote, “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!”

PBS Independent Lens featured Brown’s story in its series Sentencing Children. This is a clip of then-16-year-old Cyntoia Brown being interrogated by Assistant District Attorney Jeff Burks during a juvenile court hearing.

JEFF BURKS: You felt like if you tried to leave, he would harm you.


JEFF BURKS: And your belief in that is based on the fact that he told you he had some guns and he’s a sharpshooter.

CYNTOIA BROWN: Not only that, but the way he was acting.

JEFF BURKS: But also—well, the only thing we know is that he bought you food, he took you home, you used his bathroom—you felt comfortable doing that. You ate with him—you felt comfortable with doing that. You sat on the couch and watched TV with him—you felt comfortable doing that. You got into bed and at least one time went to sleep while he was there—you felt comfortable doing that.

CYNTOIA BROWN: I never went to sleep. He just grabbed me like in between my legs. Like he just grabbed it real hard. And he just gave me this look. It was like a very fierce look. And it just sent these chills up my spine. I’m thinking he’s finna hit me or do something like it, but then he rolls over and reaches—like he’s reaching to the side of the bed or something. So I’m thinking now he’s not finna hit me, he’s finna get a gun.

ATTORNEY: And what did you do at that time?

CYNTOIA BROWN: I just grabbed the gun, and I shot him.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cyntoia Brown at 16. She’s now 30 years old, set to be released in August.

For more, we’re joined by Mariame Kaba, organizer and educator who has worked on anti-domestic violence programs, as well as anti-incarceration and racial justice programs, since the late ’80s. She’s the co-founder of Survived and Punished, an organization that supports survivors of violence who have been criminalized for defending themselves, a board member of Critical Resistance.

Mariame Kaba, welcome to Democracy Now!

MARIAME KABA: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what has taken place in this case and the significance of the Republican governor of Tennessee granting her clemency. How did this happen?

MARIAME KABA: Well, I think it’s important to note that Cyntoia has been surrounded by a support team of people for at least the past decade. In the beginning, she had a very kind of proactive lawyer, who was very supportive of her and has become a lifelong friend and continues to support her. Her subsequent lawyers were people also who really fought for her, to try to make sure that she wouldn’t end up with a life sentence. She has had community members, family people, who have kept her story and her name alive for all of these years. So I think I want to, you know, kind of make sure people understand that this didn’t come out of nowhere and that people have been fighting on her behalf for almost as long as she’s been incarcerated.

It was recently, with—in 2017 of last year—you mentioned Rihanna and Kim Kardashian posting some stuff on Instagram, which got more people to know her case in the modern era. Most people actually still thought she was 16. And most people also thought it had just happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s step back for a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: What did happen? What happened to Cyntoia?

MARIAME KABA: Well, Cyntoia—in 2004, Cyntoia was 16 years old. She was picked up for sex by a 43-year-old man named Johnny Allen, who took her to his house. And Cyntoia says that when she got there, first he was haggling her for money—about the money. Secondly, he showed her a bunch of guns that he had in his possession. Thirdly, as you heard in the tape before, she was worried because he was acting, what she felt was, strange.

And when he leaned over on his bed—he had showed her some guns under his bed. She thought that he was going for a gun and that he was going to harm her. She had a gun that had been given to her by her pimp, a guy named “Kut-throat,” who she had been living with at a motel from the time she was about 15 years old, because she had run away from home at that point. And she used the gun, that had been given to her for protection, to shoot this man, and he ended up dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a clip, another clip from the film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which aired on PBS Independent Lens. In this clip, Cyntoia is questioned about her trafficker.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: What’s this guy, “Kut”? What’s his real name?

CYNTOIA BROWN: Garion McGlothen.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: So how long were you living with him?

CYNTOIA BROWN: For like three weeks.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: And then what—so, what was he like?

CYNTOIA BROWN: In different hotels. I remember one time—the first time he did something to me is when he choked me, and I passed out, because he said I thought he was a joke.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: Mm-hmm. What else did he do to you?

CYNTOIA BROWN: He’d talk real, real bad to me, and then he’d jack me up. He pulled me by my hair and dragged me and stuff. He put guns up to me, told me to strip and stuff like that, get into bed with other people.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: Did you ever have sex with the guys?

CYNTOIA BROWN: When Kut put a [bleep] gun up to me, I did.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: Did he—did he have sex with you, too?

CYNTOIA BROWN: Yeah, he had sex with me. Sometimes I didn’t want to have sex with him; he’d still [bleep] me. I’d be crying and everything.

DR. WILLIAM BERNET: So, how come you stayed with him?

CYNTOIA BROWN: You’re not listening. I made him money. He wasn’t going to let me go nowhere. He told me he’d kill me. He knows where my mom lives. And I know if dude choked me ’til I almost passed out, he’s not afraid to kill me.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Cyntoia in Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which aired on PBS Independent Lens. Take it from there, Mariame.

MARIAME KABA: Right. So, she ends up going to trial two years after her arrest in 2004. And they decide that they’re going to try her—she was a juvenile at the time that this happened—and that they would try her as an adult.


MARIAME KABA: I think some things that people probably know intuitively is that black children don’t get to be children. There’s a kind of adultification of children, particularly black children and children of color. So, Cyntoia, at 16, wasn’t seen as a young person; she was seen as an adult already, basically. And they put her on trial as an adult.

She ended up getting convicted, and she ended up getting convicted. Her sentence was life in prison. So you could imagine the shock to the system of somebody who has basically been sexually coerced her entire life, who was a runaway, so she was already precarious, defended herself against somebody who basically, if nothing else, was doing statutory rape. He was 43; she was 16 years old. And she ends up in a situation where she has got to figure out if she’s going to, you know, take—potentially put herself at risk of dying or if she’s going to take action. She chooses to take action. She’s punished for it. So, she’s punished, basically, for survival. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think her case would have ended up differently if she was white and her rapist was black?

MARIAME KABA: I mean, it’s hard to know about these things. I will say this. Black people in this country have traditionally, historically, been punished for any perceived transgression, and so—and punished more excessively than white people.

But I do want to make a point that I think is important, which is that we have a mass incarceration problem in this country that basically also sweeps in a bunch of poor white people. So, you know, while black people are disproportionately targeted by the system, white people are pulled into the system, as well. So what we have is a mass criminalization and mass incarceration problem. I think we’re going to have to do some work to dismantle those things.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison.


AMY GOODMAN: She has served what? She will have served 15 years in prison?

MARIAME KABA: Before her release, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Before her release in August.

MARIAME KABA: Mm-hmm, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve talked about the support she’s had all the time she’s been in prison. But what forced the Republican Tennessee Governor Haslam to grant clemency?


AMY GOODMAN: And were you surprised when he did?

MARIAME KABA: I wasn’t surprised that he—no, because I’m an organizer. And when people mobilize and put pressure on targets, we can win.

And I think what happened was that the Supreme Court in Tennessee, in early December, came back and upheld a decision to say that, in fact, she wasn’t going to ever be able to be paroled before serving 51 years in prison, so that she would have gotten out of prison, had a chance to get out of prison and go in front of a parole board at the age of 67. And that particular Supreme Court decision in Tennessee is what galvanized this latest version of a mobilization on her behalf. So, people were like, “Wait a minute. First of all, this is unjust that she spent one day in prison. Secondly, they’re going have her spend 51 years in prison before she even gets a chance for a second chance. This is unacceptable.”

And at that point, a group of different groups all around the country came together with a targeted effort to go after that. That included groups like BLM Nashville, Color of Change, the Highlander Center, that some of those three—two of those three are based in Tennessee, so it made sense that they would kind of push.

I want to bring up the fact that, you know, a lot of people on social media got involved and started making phone calls. At one point, my understanding was that the Governor’s Office was getting 6,000 calls in a day. That’s, you know, unprecedented and unheard of. They had to like switch over their lines to another line altogether in order to keep up with the amount of people that were pushing for her to get out. So, I think that pressure happened—

AMY GOODMAN: What is Cyntoia’s reaction?

MARIAME KABA: Well, my understanding was that she put out a statement at the end of that. She was really thankful for people’s support. I think she’s—I’m sure she’s absolutely thrilled to be able to be released from prison.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called her act a radical act of “self-love.” Explain.

MARIAME KABA: Well, I think that in this culture where black lives are incredibly devalued, where we are in a position of always having to defend our very existence, that to insist that you deserve to live, by any means necessary, is an act of radical self-love. So I absolutely believe that that’s the case.

I do want to say something, though, that I think is very important right now for people who are really in the moment, very excited about this. It is very good that she’s out of prison. I think people should know that she’s being released into supervised parole, which she’s going to be on for 10 years. That’s a decade, which means she’s going to have spent 25 years of her very young life under state supervision. For those people who don’t know, parole is extremely, extremely restrictive. They’re going to give a whole set of conditions, which will mostly be arbitrary. If she violates any of those conditions, they could violate her right back to prison. She’s going to be spending 10 years basically on pins and needles, making sure that nothing goes wrong, missing—


MARIAME KABA: Missing any sort of parole meetings, ending up going somewhere that she wasn’t supposed to go, by accident. Those things can violate you. And so, she’s going to have to be very careful for the next 10 years that she doesn’t get violated back. So she’s not 100 percent free. And I think that’s something people should pay attention to. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You have traced the treatment of black women who dare to defend themselves back to slavery.

MARIAME KABA: Right, yeah, at least. Yeah. I mean, in this country, coming to this country as chattel—so property, not person—we, as black women, in particular, were continuously subjected to sexual violence, with no recourse. Absolute impunity.

I wrote a piece for The Guardian last week that talked about the story of an enslaved young woman named Celia, who fought back against her master, who was also her rapist, killing him. And she went to trial. She had very vigorous defense. This is 1855 in Missouri. And the court found that she was property, not person, therefore could not be raped. And they ended up executing her in December of 1855.

And I think a lot about that, because it shows something about black women having no selves worth defending, having no selves worth being seen as valuable enough that you can have bodily autonomy. I think that’s really important.

AMY GOODMAN: How many Cyntoia Browns are in prison?

MARIAME KABA: Thousands. There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison.

I think I want to also make the point that, overwhelmingly, especially when you look at women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority, up to 90 percent of the people in there, have had histories of sexual and physical violence prior to ending up in prison. There’s a wonderful activist, formerly incarcerated survivor herself, named Susan Burton, who talks about the fact that what we do is incarcerate trauma, when we incarcerate women and when we incarcerate gender-nonconforming people.

So, there are thousands of Cyntoias. And I think we should really pay attention to the fact that we should be fighting for all of those to be free, and that this example of a governor doing commutations shows how much power the executive has to actually free people. And we are in a state, in New York, where we have a governor who’s probably one of the most merciless governors we have, who almost never commutes anybody’s sentence. And we have close to 50,000 people locked up in our state, here in New York—supposedly progressive haven, right?—and he has commuted 19 sentences in eight years. Nineteen. And one of those was a domestic violence criminalized survivor. That’s unacceptable. So, if people have energy as a result of Cyntoia’s case, I’m excited about that, but I want people to channel that energy into fighting in your own state and figuring out how we’re going to free all criminalized survivors of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Mariame Kaba, I want to thank you so much for being with us, organizer, educator, who’s worked on anti-domestic violence programs, as well as anti-incarceration and racial justice programs. She’s the co-founder of Survived and Punished.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, could 50,000 Haitians who fled the earthquake nine years ago this week be about to be deported? Stay with us.

Countdown is on: We have 10 days to raise $50,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.