Cyntoia Brown: Did She Deserve Her Life Sentence to Prison?

By, Anna M. ’21

Should a teen be able to be sentenced to life in prison for a crime they committed as a child? This question is not one we at Winsor will likely ever fully comprehend, but it was brought about in part because of Cyntoia Brown’s clemency bid. Though each case should take into account any outside influences, teens should not be able to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I don’t support these sentences because there is a widespread acknowledgment that the rational portion of children’s brains is not fully developed until age 25. Additionally, it is known that children are incapable of always making mature decisions, easily susceptible to negative influences in the media and peer pressure, and are unable to protect themselves from dangerous home environments.

Brown’s sentence of 51 years in prison was commuted on January 7, 2019, by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to an August 7, 2019 release plus 10 years of supervised parole. Brown, now 30, was born in Tennessee to mother Georgina Mitchell but given up for adoption while an infant due to her mother’s abuse of alcohol and cocaine. After spending time in the Department of Children’s Services for committing small crimes, Brown returned to her adoptive family only to run away at age 16 in 2004.

While homeless, Brown began an intimate relationship with Garion L. McGlothen, and they lived together in a hotel. McGlothen forced Brown into sex-trafficking, and she supported herself and McGlothen through her involuntary prostitution. During their relationship, McGlothen reportedly raped and beat Brown on numerous occasions. On August 6, 2004, Brown went home with 43-year-old real estate broker Johnny Allen who, as Brown stated, offered her $150 to have sex with him. At some point in the night, Brown shot Allen in the back of the head with her gun, took Allen’s wallet and two of his firearms, and drove away in his truck.

Despite being 16, Brown was tried as an adult and charged with first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and aggravated robbery. During the trial, the prosecution claimed that Brown shot Allen while he was asleep and that she murdered him not in self-defense, but in hopes of robbing him. In contrast, Brown claimed that she saw Allen reach for a gun under the bed and that she shot him in fear for her own life. She also claimed that she robbed Allen in fear of what McGlothen would do if she showed up to him empty-handed. Brown was found guilty and sentenced to a life with the possibility of parole. It was dictated that she serve a minimum of 51 years in prison before she became eligible for release. Student Ella T. ’21 shared, “If someone I knew were to have this experience and receive this sentence, I couldn’t imagine not seeing them for 51 years.”

Brown’s story came back into the spotlight in March 2011 when a PBS documentary entitled Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired, bringing attention to her story. Brown’s sentencing was very harsh, and since then, sentencing guidelines for juveniles have been amended based on the growing sentiment that children should not be subjected to lifelong sentences. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment because they fall under “cruel and unusual punishment.” This decision was much needed and long overdue, but The Sentencing Project states that “over 2,100 individuals sentenced mandatorily as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole now have a chance for release in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions.” It would be very interesting and informational if we discussed issues such as this one sometime at Winsor—not in a debate format, but simply as a way of sharing differing opinions and learning about issues such as the prison system that do not come up often in our classes. Sharing opinions on what is just and unjust would be an eye-opening experience for all those at Winsor.

One common misconception is that the people to whom this amendment applies will now walk free. That is false, but their cases will be revisited after an appropriate amount of time, and the specific circumstances of each offender will be taken into account. Several news affiliates have stated that if Brown were to be charged today, the outcome would have been different in that she would be viewed as a victim. On December 6, 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Brown would be eligible for parole after serving 51 years in prison. At this time, she would be 67 years old. After much deliberation and input from both sides, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted Brown’s sentence. While in prison Brown has taken great strides toward self-transformation. Brown received a high school diploma as well as an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University in 2015, and she is working toward her bachelor’s degree. She has also been mentoring troubled youth and, in collaboration, Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System has been counseling at-risk youth. Brown is an example of moving past one’s previous mistakes and using them as fuel to do good. Brown’s story, though very complicated, has reinforced my opinion that life sentences for children are unjust because of the obvious growth that she has had while in prison. By being given one of these sentences, a child is denied the opportunity for growth and maturity in a society that most other children take for granted.