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Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life at 16, released from prison

August 7, 2019

Nashville, TN – Cyntoia Brown was released from a Tennessee prison on Wednesday after serving 15 years of a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a Nashville real estate agent.

Brown was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women on parole, according to the state's Department of Corrections.

She was 16 at the time of her crime. Earlier this year, former Gov. Bill Haslam took the rare step of commuting her sentence, paving the way for her release.

The case garnered national attention and drew support from high-profile celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian-West.

In the years leading to her release, Brown's complicated story also has served to rally lawmakers, juvenile justice reformers and critics of Tennessee's unusually harsh life sentences for teens, those working to expose child sex trafficking and others highlighting racial inequities in the justice system.

Brown, who is African American and now 31, has been institutionalized for more than half her life. She was sentenced to life in prison in the shooting death of 43-year-old Johnny Allen.

Brown said she was sent by her then-24-year-old boyfriend and pimp to make money. According to Brown, Allen picked her up at a Nashville Sonic restaurant, bought her food and then took her to his home.

She was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison — state law dictated that she would not be eligible for parole for at least 51 years.

Then-Gov. Haslam intervened in Brown's case in January near the end of his term, using his exclusive power to grant an executive clemency.

Executive clemency in Tennessee is "an act of mercy or leniency providing relief from certain consequence of a criminal conviction," according to the state's Executive Clemency Unit.

Brown's sentence was commuted, and a lesser sentence was substituted for the mandated 51 years of her original sentence.

In a recent interview with the USA TODAY Network, Haslam said his decision to grant Brown freedom was rooted in the state's evolving approach to juvenile justice, a deeper understanding of Brown's troubled background and her remarkable transformation behind bars.

"She, in her own words, did something horrible. She made a really bad decision as a very young woman," Haslam said last week. But he pointed to "mitigating factors," primarily her forced involvement in prostitution, that laid the groundwork for his decision.

"We want to believe that incarceration works," Haslam said.