A troubled youth or a troubled system?
By Savanah Tillberg, Arts and Culture Editor
In 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown shot and killed 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen and was sentenced to life in prison. Although this case is 13 years old, it has recently resurfaced through social media and has caught the attention of millions across the globe.
Brown’s story appeared once before – a 2011 documentary titled Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, outlines her life before and after Allen’s death. The documentary explores her testimony and court files, revealing that Brown’s life had largely consisted of abuse, neglect, and prostitution before the murder. In addition to her difficult childhood, it was identified that Brown suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Upon Allen’s death, Brown was living with a 24-year-old man referred to in the media as “Cut Throat.” Brown claims that Cut Throat forced her to take drugs and to engage in prostitution in order to pay their living expenses. She claims that Allen was a client who picked her up and took her to his home so that they could engage in sexual activity. During her trial, she said that his odd behaviour led her to believe that he was going to seriously harm her and that her actions, which resulted in Allen’s death, were in self-defence.
This particular case has been widely disputed because of the decision to try Brown as an adult, which ultimately resulted in her receiving a life sentence. A large number of people who have become aware of Brown’s case are outraged that she was punished for defending herself against a predator. Many argue that she could not possibly be held fully accountable for her actions, and that childhood trauma was a major contributing factor to the situation in and subsequent events.
Others are not as convinced that Brown’s actions were a result of her abusive childhood nor self-defence. After shooting Allen, Brown took some of his money, two of his guns, and drove his truck to a parking lot. These actions lead the case prosecutor, Jeff Burks, and ultimately the court, to believe that Brown was neither a sex-slave nor a victimized child.
In response to the resurfacing of Brown’s case, Kim Kardashian-West tweeted, “The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.” Kardashian-West plans on keeping her promise. Brown’s attorney, Charles Bone, confirmed to WZTV-TV that he is in touch and currently working with the celebrity’s legal team to develop a plan to proceed with Brown’s case.
During the past decade, Brown’s case has been instrumental in designing new legislation which allows juveniles with life sentences to receive parole eligibility sooner. Currently, convicts with life sentences must wait 51 years before being eligible for parole in the United States. It is argued that the circumstances of a child’s life and how those circumstances affect their behaviour must be weighted more heavily in assessing their level of guilt and determining the length of their punishment for serious crimes.
Brown’s case is just one example of many where an act of self-defence resulting from female exploitation is criminalized and under-examined. While it is too soon to tell if the efforts of celebrities and other social media users will play a role in in Brown’s freedom, the current dialogue and media attention surrounding this case will, at the very least, spark incentives to positive change in the sentencing of traumatized youth in the future.