By Jueseppi B.
Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story
Published on May 2, 2013
In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for the murder of a 43-year-old man. Cyntoia was a prostitute and he was her client.
Film-maker Daniel Birman was granted unique access to Cyntoia from the week of her arrest, throughout her trial and over a period of six years. His documentary explores the tragic events in her life that led up to the murder, and Cyntoia’s biological mother meets he daughter for the first time since giving her up for adoption 14 years earlier.
The film explores the history of abuse, violence, drugs and prostitution back through three generations. As Cyntoia faces a lifetime in prison, the programme asks difficult questions about her treatment by the American justice system.
In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl — who grew-up in a reasonable home environment — to this tragic end?
Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story explores Cyntoia’s life. The camera first glimpses her the week of her arrest at age 16 and follows her for nearly six years. Along the way, nationally renown juvenile forensic psychiatrist, Dr. William Bernet from Vanderbilt University, assesses her situation. We meet Ellenette Brown, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother who talks about the young girl’s early years. Georgina Mitchell, Cyntoia’s biological mother, meets her for the first time since she gave her up for adoption 14 years earlier. When we meet Cyntoia’s maternal grandmother, Joan Warren, some patterns begin to come into sharp focus.
Cyntoia wrestles with her fate. She is stunningly articulate, and spends the time to put the pieces of this puzzle together with us. Cyntoia’s pre-prison lifestyle was nearly indistinguishable from her mother’s at the same age. History — predestined by biology and circumstance — is repeating down the generations in this family.
In the end, we catch up with Cyntoia as she is adjusting to prison, and struggling with her identity and hope for her future.
By: Judith Yates
Cyntoia Brown found herself standing near a Nashville street, sobbing from a beating she just received from her boyfriend/pimp when 43-year-old Johnny Allen pulled up to ask her, “Are you alright?” Seeking refuge, her story of fear, abuse, and addiction spilled out to the stranger. So he solicited her: “Are you up for some action?” The 16-year-old girl’s life took a dramatic change hours later.
She had been working as a prostitute to pay the bills and for a twenty-four-year-old boyfriend’s drug habit, smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine when life got too harsh. Cyntoia had hit the street at thirteen, a chronic runaway. “I wasn’t running from; I was running to,” she explains now. The streets of Nashville gave her “what I thought was freedom” versus what she felt was a cloistered life in Clarksville, where a Viet Nam veteran stepfather drank excessively and meted out punishment whenever.
Her biological mother worked the streets prostituting to support a drug addiction. She and another teen runaway relied “on the kindness of strangers” who were aware of their runaway status, but did not care or used her youth to their own advantage. “I could pick up (marijuana) and smoke it whenever, I could stay out late or sleep, I was infatuated with older men who were twenty-five, twenty-six” she thought were boyfriends, but in reality were abusive pimps. She lived from seedy apartment to hotel room. The flotsam life had to end badly, and for Cyntoia Brown it did: in September 2006 she was sentenced to life in prison for killing Johnny Allen hours after he had picked her up. She will be eligible for parole when she is 67.
Today, Brown is a 25 year old, juxtaposing of street-wise youth and educated philosopher who is scoring high collegiate marks and enjoying work as a tutor, assisting inmates obtain their GED. “I’m always moving forward. I have the stigma of being an inmate,” Brown says. “But I try not to get caught up in the negative. I have to stay positive to survive.” She does not see incarcerated women following her lead. “It’s like they’ve given up. On everything, and everyone.” Outside prison, the legal jousting continues on her case: being tried as an adult, her history of mental illness and childhood abuse, the victim’s intentions, and a documentary made on her life. But inside, all she has is “to keep working to inspire people in here.”
Brown is philosophical on her life story. “Nothing bad affected me from my childhood,” she says. “I was thirteen and thought I knew it all. You don’t know half of what you think you know. You don’t think of the future consequences of your actions. But things (from childhood) stick with you. It affects your self esteem, yourself, how you view relationships.” Pimps, she says, “have a way of getting into your mind and you believe everything they say. They can mold you, shape you, break you until you’re like a puppy mill puppy, shirking and scared of everyone else.” She encourages young people to “listen to adults.
They’re here for a reason. I missed getting a driver’s license, going to a prom. I wish I would have listened to people in my life that were positive.” Now that she is sentenced to life behind bars, her worries have changed: “If someone feels like something is wrong, do something about it. Write a letter. Speak out. Don’t just be outraged.” What would her victim’s family say? “I don’t know. They said (during victim impact statements) at my trial they hated me.” She ponders the question. “To hope they’ve forgiven me is naïve.” She looks away, thinking of the victim. “He was a Sunday school teacher, sang in the choir.” Then she frowns. “But he knew how old I was (16). I told him. And he still did it (solicited her for sex). I don’t get it.” Sex crimes against underage girls continue to baffle her.
Despite a youth that spun out of control, constant issues with prison rules, mental illness, and prostituting when most girls worried over school sweethearts, Cyntoia Brown pushes on. She is verbose, thoughtful, and polite. She has also proven to be combative, argumentive, and manipulative. She was one of the seventeen percent of Nashville students who did not complete high school, and one of 500,000 to 2.8 million kids living on the U.S. street (one in four of these runaways are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home), one of 2,250 U.S. juveniles sentenced to life without parole for an offense committed as a child. She is a statistic, an inmate, a murderer, and an example of juvenile delinquency in this state. However, “I have to remind people that I’m a person,” she explains. “I’m naïve, but I believe, somehow, I can make a difference.”
Cyntoia Brown did not receive a fair trial. Cyntoia should not have been tried as an adult. She was a child living in an adult world and wrongly convicted as an adult at the age of 16.
Cyntoia Brown wrongly tried as an adult to a murder she committed in self defense at 16. She deserves tobe freed as she has served her time for the crime she did not intend to do.
Cyntoia Brown – Life begins at 16
Uploaded on Sep 8, 2011
In prison, Cyntoia tries recuperate her own self-esteem after years of abuse. In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was arrested for murder. There was no question that a 43-year-old man is dead and that she killed him. What mystified filmmaker Daniel Birman was just how common violence among youth is, and just how rarely we stop to question our assumptions about it. He wondered in this case what led a girl — who grew-up in a reasonable home environment — to this tragic end?
Life Sentences – Cyntoia Brown
Uploaded on Sep 8, 2011
Cyntoia Brown could be a gifted litigator, professor Preston Shipp thought, as he discussed the moving parts of the criminal justice system with his 30 students. Inquisitive, engaged, able to parse a legal principle and trace its lineage, the 21-year-old Brown was unlike anyone he’d ever taught.
It wasn’t just that she wrung every nugget of knowledge she could from her professor. It was her active, searching mind. Whenever Shipp played devil’s advocate supporting the prevailing model of mass incarceration, Cyntoia was the one student he could count on to pick holes in his argument. That set her apart from his students at Lipscomb University, undergrads whose attendance at chapel and Bible study is mandatory.
But there was another reason Cyntoia was different. Unlike his Lipscomb students, whose futures were limitless, Shipp knew she would never become a litigator. That’s because the class he was teaching met behind the heavy steel doors of the Tennessee Prison for Women, inside fences strung with razor wire.
By that spring of 2009, Cyntoia Brown had been locked up for nearly five years. Under the terms of her life sentence, she had about 45 to go before her term was up.
It was the second year of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education, a free program that places 15 traditional Lipscomb undergrads — mostly from white, upper-middle-class Christian families — in the same class with 15 felons, convicted of crimes such as murder and armed robbery. The program was intended to address gaps left after a 1994 federal law effectively defunded Pell Grants for inmate education, despite research from the Federal Bureau of Prisons showing that education lowers recidivism rates.
In 2004, Cyntoia was already a veteran of Middle Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. Back then, she was living out of a room at a South Nashville extended-stay dive. Her companion was a 24-year-old drug dealer and armed robber known as “Cut-throat,” who had her out on a Murfreesboro Road red-light district turning tricks for coke money.
That life reached its brutal apex on a summer night that August, when a 43-year-old real estate agent picked her up under circumstances that raise as many questions as they answer. That night, Cyntoia shot him in the back of the head and stole a couple of guns from his house. She was caught, and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. At an age most kids are worrying about drivers’ licenses and prom dresses, Cyntoia Brown was facing an adult criminal trial for premeditated murder.
But Preston Shipp didn’t know any of this. To him, Cyntoia was a wunderkind in prison blues. For all her outsize garrulousness, she was just 5 feet 2. She wore her thick, wavy black hair just past her shoulders, and her large, expressive eyes were often rimmed with black eyeliner. She was a magnetic presence, even in standard-issue jeans with “Tennessee Prison for Women” stenciled down the leg.
Shipp was no stranger to the criminal justice system. A former Tennessee assistant attorney general, he often worked the other side in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing on behalf of the state. If an appellant claimed his trial representation was ineffective, it was Shipp’s job to argue that the defense was more than adequate. If an appellant claimed his sentence was unreasonable, Shipp argued it was appropriate and just.
During his five years in office, Shipp wrote some 250 briefs. He didn’t lose much sleep over the people he helped keep behind bars. Most of them, he thought, were exactly where they needed to be.
But over the past few years, something had changed. He’d been spending time in the prison, teaching young women like Cyntoia who seemed eager to redeem themselves and their squandered lives. In class, he led his students in scathing critiques of the criminal justice system — the mass incarceration, the neglect of victims’ needs, the damaged people who often ended up convicted, the lip service paid to rehabilitation.
Shipp began to question his long-held beliefs, and to wonder about people who’d once been nothing more to him than names on a docket. Then one day, in April 2009, about a month into class, the professor was sorting through his mail when something stopped him cold.
Among the letters was an opinion from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. It settled a case he’d argued the summer before. The judges upheld the trial court’s conviction — which meant the professor successfully defeated the appeal on behalf of the Tennessee attorney general. It was another win for Preston Shipp.
Any sense of victory he felt, however, was gone when he read the appellant’s name. It was an improbable coincidence, and yet there it was: the name of his star student, Cyntoia Denise Brown.
Shipp sat frozen in disbelief.
You can write Cyntoia Brown at
3881 Stewart’s Lane
Nashville, TN 37218
A kind word. An encouraging thought. A suggestion of hope.
The American justice system is failing our youth.
I cry for this young woman.
Thank you Ms. Darcy Delaproser, Author & Blogger:
If not for Ms. Darcy Delaproser’s hard work uncovering this injustice and bringing it to my attention, I would not have known about Ms. Cyntoia Brown.
Ms. Darcy Delaproser is an angel from heaven working tirelessly to bring injustice out of the dark into the light.
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