Applauding The Release Of Cyntoia Brown

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

On this morning, Cyntoia Brown was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women after having persevered through serving 15 years of a life sentence. In 2011, her story was featured in the PBS documentary, Me Facing Life.  Despite being a victim of adverse childhood experiences, child exploitation, sex trafficking, mental illness and substance abuse, prosecutors initially pushed for a 51-year prison sentence. For more than a decade many groups, organizations and citizens advocates pushed for her clemency and release, which was granted by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam earlier this year.

This case is indicative of much of the work that needs to be done by us all in order for our society to advance.

Each day hundreds fall victim to slavery in the form of human trafficking and child exploitation.  We need more resources dedicated to the study of mental illness because of things such as chronic stress, trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Not only should many of our societal ills be treated as public health, but as illustrated by the negative affects of the Dickey Act, public institutions such as the Center for Disease Control and National Institute of Health need more funding and resources in order to help learn and understand how to best address these pressing issues.  Also, our criminal justice system must be geared towards rehabilitation, reentry and redemption, not mass incarceration, which includes wrongful convictions.  The late Toni Morrison once noted, "Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined," and, "The function of freedom is to free someone else."  Today, we share with like-minded groups, organizations and citizen advocates in once again applauding the decision of Governor Haslam in granting clemency, while simultaneously wishing Cyntoia Brown well on her freedom, and do eternally hope that this justice that failed to be denied leads to her writing a new chapter which may serve as a catalyst to help free others.

Yours in abundance,

Unity Group of Chattanooga
Sherman E Matthews Jr,  Chairman
Pastor Charlotte S. N. Williams, Vice Chair
Eric Atkins, Corresponding Secretary

Cc: Clemency for Cyntoia Brown
January 5, 2018
Cyntoia Brown's story has been chronicled in numerous publications and in a 2011 PBS documentary, Me Facing Life. She endured an extremely difficult childhood which includes a family history of mental illness and sexual assault, was born to a mother who suffered from substance abuse and that was subsequently incarcerated, and was thrust into an early childhood experience which saw her become adopted and ultimately embark upon a tumultuous path that resulted in her assuming the life of a runaway. As an effect of this exposure during her most formative years, she was subjected to what we call today sexual trafficking where neglect, abuse and exploitation were commonplace in her daily experience. During one specific encounter an alleged solicitor, Johnny Allen of Nashville, would be found shot to death and as a consequence varying narratives over the slaying developed. Brown asserted that she was a 16 prostitute who was defending herself after a hook-up that went terribly astray. Law enforcement and later prosecutors made the claim that Allen was brutally murdered because his money, vehicle and possessions were taken from the scene of the crime. In 2006, she was convicted of first degree murder and robbery as prosecutors pushed for punishment to the fullest extent of the law possible, 51 years to life in prison. Nevertheless, despite this ruling, there are several mitigating factors and extenuating circumstances to consider in order to develop an informed and impartial determination of Cyntoia’s guilt or innocence. 

In the original sentencing hearings, there was an egregious lack of attention paid to Cyntoia's mental health and cognitive abilities. The opinions that developed after numerous psychological evaluations were that there were signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It was also concluded that she had symptoms that were consistent with dissociative identity disorder which is a condition that the American Psychiatric Association states, "involve problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior and sense of self ", and are symptoms that "can potentially disrupt every area of mental functioning." Likewise, the mid-1990's study between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego sought to measure the effects that childhood trauma, toxic stress and an unstable environment had on cognitive, behavioral and mental development, and upon examining the early stages of Cyntoia’s life, the pathologies and exposure in which she was surrounded could be properly classified as an adverse childhood experience. 

Notwithstanding, there are other disturbing patterns that must be called into question concerning the courts. Was there a full adherence to due process and equal protection under the law, particularly for a minor that clearly demonstrated cognitive, behavioral and emotional deficits? Was there access to a fair trial with adequate and effective legal representation, especially when we know that members of Cyntoia’s family didn't testify and her mental health issues were not adequately conveyed to the court?  Have the courts been fair and adequate dispensers of justice, especially in lieu of the fact that in Miller v. Alabama (2012) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Similarly after reviewing the case in 2018 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals openly questioned if Tennessee's sentencing laws pertaining to these type cases were “confusing and contradictory?" Should not federal statutes such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), Violence Against Women's Act (1994) and Crime Victims' Rights Act (2004) be applicable in this case?

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is another legal statue that could be applied in Cyntoia’s case. In 2011, the Federal Government designated each January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in part because, “Human trafficking is a global travesty that takes many forms.  Whether forced labor or sexual trafficking, child soldiering or involuntary domestic servitude, these abuses are an affront to our national, and to our values as Americans and human beings.” Correspondingly, the International Labour Organization and End Slavery Now define trafficking as forced, child and bonded labour; sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. The most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery Report (2017) tens of thousands of persons are subjected to trafficking each day. In addition,The Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends, 2012-2016 report (2017) suggests that 150 million children worldwide have fallen victim to various types of exploitation and forced labour.

The magnitude and gravity of what occurred during this case cannot be belittled or minimized because, regretfully, there was the loss of a human life. Notwithstanding, when weighing the extenuating and mitigating circumstances that enveloped throughout this whole sad circumstance a reasonable conclusion that can be ascertained is that were widespread and systemic failures on virtually every level. For these reasons, we join like-minded civil rights groups, social justice organizations and individuals from across the world in calling on Governor Haslam to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown.

Respectfully, Unity Group Chattanooga
Sherman E Matthews Jr, Chairman
Eric Atkins, Editor

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