A woman who was 16 when she killed a Nashville man who asked her for sex must serve not less than 51 years in prison before she’s qualified for release, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
On Thursday the court said that defendants like Cyntoia Brown, who are convicted of first-degree murder committed after July 1, 1995, and sentenced to life imprisonment, can’t be qualified for release from prison before serving more than five decades.
The court’s five justices were united in their decision against Brown, who was convicted of killing a 43-year-old man in 2004 when he took her to his house for sex. Brown has said she murdered him after she feared he would kill her.
Thursday’s ruling was due to a lawsuit where Brown argues her sentence is unconstitutional, referring to a 2012 opinion by the US Supreme Court that said mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders go against the US Constitution.
The Tennessee Supreme Court in a statement explained that “under state law, a life sentence is a determinate sentence of 60 years. However, the sixty-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 percent, or 9 years, by earning various sentence credits.”
According to the Tennessee code, those credits include recognition for good behavior or participation in educational or vocational training programs
A district court earlier denied Brown’s motion, per court documents, pointing out that she hadn’t been sentenced to life in prison without the probability of parole, just a life sentence.
The case is awaiting judgment by the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to give its opinion.
More than a 10 years after sentencing, Brown’s case caught the attention of A-list celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West who began advocating for mercy. Her story circulated on social media using the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown.
Brown says she was forced into prostitution after a hard childhood. At her trial, she said her victim, Johnny Mitchell Allen, asked her for sex and drove her to his house.
There, Brown saw a gun cabinet in Allen’s room, she told during her trial. She refused him until he seemed to reach under the bed, which convinced that he was going to kill her. Brown took a gun out of her purse and shot Allen, killing him.
Brown was tried as an adult.
In a clemency hearing in May, the Tennessee Board of Parole was divided on its suggestion to Gov. Bill Haslam. Two of the six member voted to give clemency, two to deny it, and two to make her qualified for parole after 25 years.
Prosecutors present at that hearing noted Brown killed Allen to rob him, not to defend herself.