By Kate Feldman
Cyntoia Brown, a former teenage runaway who was forced into prostitution, was sentenced to life in prison more than a decade ago after shooting and killing a man who bought her for sex. Despite changes in sex trafficking laws since then, Brown must still stay behind bars for at least 51 years, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled last week.
In 2004, 16-year-old Brown was picked up on the side of the road by Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen, 43, who took her home for sex. The teenage girl, who had run away from home and was living with her 24-year-old boyfriend, a pimp who went by "Kut Throat," fatally shot Allen in bed after she thought he was reaching for his own gun, her lawyers said.
During her trial, Brown, now 30, claimed she was choked, beaten and raped frequently in her home and threatened at gunpoint.
Brown was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery and was sentenced to life in prison.
Tennessee laws have changed since Brown was convicted, though, and a person must be 18 or older to be charged for prostitution. Children are automatically considered the victim in sex trafficking cases.
Brown has called her life sentence "cruel and unusual punishment," citing a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional. But the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled Thursday that the 2012 decision did not apply to Brown because she will be eligible for parole at age 69.
A 2011 PBS documentary, "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story," thrust Brown's case into the spotlight and a number of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, have taken up her cause.
Kardashian used Brown as an example when she met with President Trump about prison reform in May.
"The system has failed," the reality star tweeted in Nov. 2017 with the hashtag "Free Cyntoia Brown.
"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."
On Saturday, the Women's March announced that it would dedicate January's protest to Cyntoia "and all those criminalized for surviving."
Leaders of the organization also urged supporters to contact Gov. Bill Haslam and demand a pardon for Brown.
"Gov. Haslam has the power to #FreeCyntoia," the group tweeted. "Every day she remains in prison, he is actively choosing not to."
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