Everyone who has experienced injustice deserves to have their story told. But on some rare occasions, a story will come along the way that forces people to act to end the injustice. Recently, both Rihanna and Kim Kardashian gave one teen's story the visibility it needs and deserves. But who is Cyntoia Brown, the woman the two celebrities and others are speaking out about? Here's why her story needs to be told right now.
If you aren't on Twitter, then you might not have seen the photo of Brown that people have shared hundreds of thousands of times, thanks to celebrities like Kardashian and Rihanna. In the post, a young girl with braids sits in an orange jumpsuit looking solemn. The words above it explain her story: Brown was sex trafficked at the age of 16, then sold into sex slavery. It's enough to make anyone's heart break, but the story gets even worse.
According to the post, Brown shot and killed her captor, then she was put on trial for the murder (in 2004), and she was sentenced to life in prison (in 2006). The post claims Brown will be eligible for parole at the age of 69. "The system has failed," Kardashian wrote when she retweeted the photo. "We have to do better and do what's right. I've called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this."
And, after fact-checking the story, it turns out that it's completely true. It hasn't been exaggerated and turned into an internet meme, unfortunately. Brown is currently 29 years old, according to Newsweek, and in prison for committing the crime out of self defense. Due to conservative Tennessee state law, Brown's sentencing is pretty solid, even though, according to Southern Poverty Law Center, studies have shown that children being tried as adults is wrong for their mental health.
Brown's story usually resurfaces every year or so, but nothing has changed. In 2016, Brown's story inspired a push to help change Tennessee law, according to the Tennesseean, she has been used as an example of the dangers of human trafficking. But it is unclear why so many celebrities want to talk about Brown now. It could be because her story really is just that sad.
Brown was reportedly abused throughout her upbringing and then entered the foster care system, but she was forced out onto the streets by her boyfriend "Cut Throat," according to First To Know. "Cut Throat" reportedly abused Brown and forced her into prostitution. During one of those nights, in August 2004, Brown shot and killed 43-year-old Johnny Michael Allen, a Nashville real estate agent, who picked her up at a local Sonic. According to Brown, Brown shot Allen after they went to his house, he began acting weirdly, and she claimed she "feared for her life" and what might happen next.
After shooting him in the back of the head, Brown reportedly stole a couple of guns from Allen's home, according to Nashville Scene, and police later caught her after she called 911 a few days later to report the homicide. After police arrested her for the crime, according to Nashville Scene, authorities claimed Brown was "nonchalant," and that her attitude did not reflect that of someone who acted in "self defense," but Brown's story never changed. According to Refinery29, prosecutors argued that Brown shot Allen to "steal from him."
Brown was never put on the stand during her trial, according to Nashville Scene, and jurors never got to hear from a psychiatrist who could testify that Brown was suffering from borderline personality disorder. But in 2006, a jury convicted Brown of first-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and tried her as an adult.
Her story garnered the attention of documentary film maker, Daniel Birman. Over the course of six years, Birman interviewed Brown, her family members, and professionals who all backed up her story. Birman made Brown and her trial the subject of the 2011 documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story, which aired on PBS. But six years later and Brown's story is still just as relevant now as it was in 2011.
According to an essay penned by Birman, written this summer, Brown is not the same girl he met when he first started his documentary. In 2015, according to Birman, legislators in the state tried to change the harsh juvenile sentencing laws in Tennessee, but they failed. Not even the Supreme Court hearing that asked states to review life without parole sentences for teenagers could help Brown, according to Heavy, due to Tennessee state law. Brown's appeals have failed, according to Women's Health, but in the mean time, Brown has received her associate's degree and is working toward her bachelor's degree, according to The Conversation.
By sharing Brown's story, Rhianna and Kardashian are using their platforms to raise awareness of Brown's injustice. It might not seem like a lot, but it could hopefully lead to enough outrage that Brown's sentence is reconsidered.