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Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison when she was 16 and granted clemency in January. Today, she was released.
USA TODAY

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Cyntoia Brown, an alleged sex trafficking victim sentenced to life in prison for killing a man when she was 16, was released on parole early Wednesday morning, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. 

She was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women in northwest Nashville around 3:30 a.m. CT, her attorneys confirmed.

Brown, who was institutionalized for nearly half her life, is free after serving 15 years of a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a Nashville real estate agent. She will be on parole for 10 years.

Conditions of her parole include her compliance with an approved release plan, that she maintain employment or educational enrollment and that she participate in regular counseling sessions, said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections.  She’s also required to perform at least 50 hours of community service, including working with at-risk youth.

Earlier this year, former Gov. Bill Haslam took the rare step of commuting her sentence, paving the way for her release.

The case garnered national attention and drew support from high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian-West.

In the years leading to her release, Brown’s complicated story also has served to rally lawmakers, juvenile justice reformers and critics of Tennessee’s unusually harsh life sentences for teens, those working to expose child sex trafficking and others highlighting racial inequities in the justice system. 

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Who is Cyntoia Brown?

Brown, who is African American and now 31, has been institutionalized for more than half her life. She was sentenced to life in prison in the shooting death of 43-year-old Johnny Allen.

Brown said she was sent by her then-24-year-old boyfriend and pimp to make money. According to Brown, Allen picked her up at a Nashville Sonic restaurant, bought her food and then took her to his home.

She was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison – state law dictated that she would not be eligible for parole for at least 51 years.

Timeline: Cyntoia Brown’s case, conviction and successful bid for clemency

What is clemency?

Haslam intervened in Brown’s case in January near the end of his term, using his exclusive power to grant an executive clemency. 

Executive clemency in Tennessee is “an act of mercy or leniency providing relief from certain consequence of a criminal conviction,” according to the state’s Executive Clemency Unit.

Brown’s sentence was commuted, and a lesser sentence was substituted for the mandated 51 years of her original sentence. 

Analysis: Cyntoia Brown, R. Kelly and the refusal to recognize black and brown female victims

In a recent interview with the USA TODAY Network, Haslam said his decision to grant Brown freedom was rooted in the state’s evolving approach to juvenile justice, a deeper understanding of Brown’s troubled background and her remarkable transformation behind bars.

“She, in her own words, did something horrible. She made a really bad decision as a very young woman,” Haslam said last week. But he pointed to “mitigating factors,” primarily her forced involvement in prostitution, that laid the groundwork for his decision.

“We want to believe that incarceration works,” Haslam said.

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What’s next for Cyntoia Brown?

Brown’s reentry plan includes an updated risk/needs assessment, placement in the transition center, and the continuation of her current course of study through the Lipscomb University LIFE Program, said Faith Seifuddin, a public information officer for the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

“As part of the department’s commitment to seamless supervision, the re-entry plan that was developed will be shared with the supervising officers in the community,” Seifuddin said. 

During parole, Brown will be supervised according to the evidence-based standards of supervision. 

“These standards determine how often an offender meets with their officer and what additional programs they may need,” Seifuddin said.

In a statement released by her attorney, Brown thanked supporters and said she would be using her experience to help abused women and girls.  

‘Blessed’: Cyntoia Brown thanks supporters

“While first giving honor to God who made all of this possible, I would also like to thank my many supporters who have spoken on my behalf and prayed for me,” Brown said  just days before her release. 

“I’m blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come. I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.”

Follow Mariah Timms and Natalie Neysa Alund on Twitter: @MariahTimms and @nataliealund

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