Image: Donkey Hotey, CC BY 2.0
[Content warning: Cyntoia Brown. This article discusses pretty graphic sexual and physical abuse. If that is (understandably) not your cup of tea, rejoin me next week when I’ll hopefully be talking about something more pleasant.]
Because I Cannot Even with the people acting shocked and appalled that men in positions of power and control will use said power and control to harass and assault women (also in the news, water is wet, Pope is Catholic) and because my doctor told me if my blood pressure continues to go up over the phrases “tax bill,” “Roy Moore,” and “net neutrality” I’ll be dead by 35, I’ve decided to write about something else that makes me very, very upset: the miscarriage of justice in the case of Cyntoia Brown.
While Brown’s case has gotten renewed attention recently, we actually have to go all the way back to 2004 to get to the heart of how badly the justice system has screwed her over. Brown had run away from her adoptive home, and after a year of staying with a friend, met a 24-year-old who called himself “Kutthroat.” Cyntoia was 16. She started living with “Kut,” and the two kept bouncing between motels and doing cocaine together. Kut abused her sexually and physically, forcing her to strip, raping her, forcing her to have sex with others for money, strangling her until she passed out, pulling her by the hair, and holding guns on her. He told her that if she left him he would kill her, and told her that he knew where her adoptive mother lived. He also mentally and emotionally abused her, as shown in testimony from Brown regarding what Kut would tell her about her value: “He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore.”
On August 5, 2004, Kut struck Cyntoia and instructed her to get them some money. She met a 43-year-old man named Johnny Allen at a Sonic. Allen picked her up and bought her food, and initially seemed concerned for her. However, he eventually asked her if she was “up for any action.” They negotiated a price: Cyntoia asked for $200, and he countered with $100. They settled on $150.
Cyntoia tried to get them to return to the motel, but Allen insisted that they have sex at his home. He showed her multiple guns that he owned, and explained that he wanted a woman who would look at him “with desire.” Brown explained that his odd behavior began to frighten her. She asked if they could nap, and though he lay down with her he didn’t fall asleep. He kept getting up to loom over her. Brown became convinced that something terrible was going to happen—she thought that he was reaching for a gun, and thought that he was going to murder or rape her. So she pulled a gun out of her purse and shot Allen.
Despite only being 16, Cyntoia was tried as an adult. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison.
Because her story wasn’t tragic and anger-inducing enough, Dan Birman’s 2011 documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story provides even more context for the ways that the deck was stacked against her even before her birth. Her teenage mother drank frequently while pregnant with Cyntoia, resulting in Cyntoia having a type of fetal alcohol syndrome. Testing in 2011 showed that while Cyntoia had a high IQ, she was functioning at the level of a 13 or 14-year old. Cyntoia’s biological family has a history of mental illness, domestic abuse, and suicide. Cyntoia spent her childhood with various family members, and once was even kidnapped by a family member. She was physically and sexually abused as a child, and in one particularly heartbreaking scene from the documentary, she breaks down the sexual experiences she has had in her life. Of over 30 sexual experiences she had, nearly that many were nonconsensual. Some were with relatives. Only 9 used protection.
Her original attorney suggested she not testify, and mental health experts didn’t testify about her fetal alcohol syndrome at her original trial.
While a tragic backstory is not an excuse for a crime, all of this is necessary context for Cyntoia’s mental state at the time of the shooting. Not to mention the fact that she was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim. Though you wouldn’t know it from the way the prosecution acted. During her transfer hearing (the hearing that determines if Cyntoia is tried as a juvenile or as an adult) the prosecutor Jeff Burks makes it clear that he thinks Cyntoia is two things: a perfectly competent adult, and a slut.
He points out that Allen took her to Sonic and took her to his home and let her use his bathroom, as if this nominates him for a humanitarian of the year award. Burks emphasizes that Cyntoia felt “comfortable enough” doing these things, implying that her later concern is absolutely unreasonable. Teresa Jusino points out that Burks’ mischaracterization of Cyntoia continued after her trial:
Later, Jeff Burks, the Assistant District Attorney who successfully jailed Cyntoia, warned against sympathizing with her saying, “She wasn’t just somebody who make one mistake. She was a very dangerous person. The choices she made were hers. She’s pretty and smart and articulate so people have decided to take up her cause. Let’s not forget her crime.”
Cyntoia was not treated as a child. She was not treated as a survivor of sex trafficking. She was not treated as if her concerns for her life were valid. She was treated as an adult, as a consenting sex worker, and as a liar.
To reiterate, Cyntoia was 16. Even if she hadn’t been coerced by an abusive boyfriend into prostitution, she couldn’t have legally consented to Allen anyway. What she was doing in Allen’s home can’t be considered prostitution because she wasn’t old enough to consent. While Allen’s death is unfortunate, we also have to remember that this is a man who picked up a sixteen-year-old girl, heard about her troubles with her abusive partner, and then not only asked her for sex but tried to lowball her on the price. Allen was exploiting a child at the time of his death, and Cyntoia was defending herself. (Strange how when a teenage black girl claims self defense she’s a dangerous criminal, but when police officers kill black teenagers in “self defense” they often don’t even face trial.)
Brown should have been tried as a juvenile, if her case went to court at all. Ironically, if she had committed her crime today, she almost certainly would be, as Jusino explains:
What’s sad is that now, this case has changed the law in Cyntoia’s home state. Tennessee now recognizes that there is no such thing as “child prostitution.” If Cyntoia stood trial today, she’d be treated as a victim of sex trafficking. Instead, she’s being robbed of the rest of her life.
Cyntoia’s case is an intersection of a variety of misunderstandings and marginalizations: a misunderstanding of consent and trafficking, a stigma against those perceived to be doing sex work, the sexualization and perception of a lack of innocence that is often used against black girls, and a distrust of women and girls. There is no doubt that Cyntoia has paid for her crime and more after spending nearly half her life in prison.
Various celebrities have taken up Cyntoia’s cause, using the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown. In a rare example of using her celebrity powers for good, Kim Kardashian has even gotten her own lawyers to address Cyntoia’s case. Hopefully this particular miscarriage of justice will be resolved, and Cyntoia’s case will serve as a warning to future prosecutors who are over-zealous in condemning sex trafficking victims who defend themselves.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not giving her doctor a heart attack with her blood pressure numbers, she studies gender in popular culture.
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