January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. Advocates, organizations and individuals unite to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking across the country. An Alabama audience recently heard from a trafficking survivor who gained national attention and advocacy from celebrities, but the road to freedom for Cyntoia Brown has been rocky and controversial.
“We have to learn how to protect people who have gone through this when they go before the court,” she said to an audience in Birmingham earlier this month at an event put on by the local Junior League and city councilor Crystal Smitherman.
When she talks about being a victim of sex trafficking, she’s speaking from personal experience.
“Do you have special courts that understand their experience or treat them differently? Or are you going to put them in situation’s that I was in, like Chrystal Kizer is in?” she asked the audience. “Are you going to continue to turn a blind eye to what they went through and punish them like they’re criminals instead of traumatized women?”
Kizer is another victim of trafficking. She’s currently behind bars for shooting a customer. That’s something else that Brown knows about. She delivered her message to an audience in Birmingham, and it’s not the first time she’s been in the public eye.
After serving 15 years behind bars, Brown welcomed freedom last August. She was a convicted murderer set free, and that sent shockwaves across the nation. Prosecutors said she committed murder to get cash, but she contends she was a victim of abuse, rape and sex trafficking, acting in self-defense against a child predator. Her life forever changed after firing a bullet.
PBS aired a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cynotia’s Story. During the interviews, Brown was 16 years old. In one clip, she’s talking with a psychiatrist after prosecutors said she shot and killed a Nashville man.
“I thought he was reaching for a gun. So I’m like, aw s***. You know what I’m saying? That what he’s doing. He’s trying to murder me or rape me or something,” she said.
In the interview, the psychiatrist then asked her, “Yeah? Then what did you do?”
Brown replied, “I shot him.”
Brown said it all started when he paid her $150 to have sex with him. The murder happened in January of 2004. Brown said Johnny Michael Allen paid her for sex and brought her to his home. She said that during their encounter she feared for her life, which led her to shoot him with a gun she’d brought in her purse for protection.
During a 2004 hearing to see if her case would go to trial, Brown explained to a judge why she feared for her life.
“[Allen] just grabbed me in between my legs, grabbed it real hard. He just gave me this look. It was a very fierce look, and it just sent these chills up my spine,” she said. “I’m thinking he’s about to hit me or do something like that, but then he rolls over and reaches, like he’s reaching to the side of the bed or something. So I’m thinking, ‘He’s not about to hit me. He’s about to get a gun.’”
Her argument was not helped by the fact she took his guns and money and escaped the scene of the crime in his truck. Brown was eventually charged, tried and convicted in Allen’s murder as an adult. In Tennessee, that carries a life sentence of at least 60 years behind bars. Even with good behavior, Brown would have to serve 51 years before any chance of parole.
The harshness of her sentencing later sparked a celebrity-driven campaign from Kim Kardashian West, LeBron James, Meek Mill and Rihanna, who brought national attention to her case. Brown tried to get clemency, but that was denied. Her lawyers would fight for her to be freed, only to be rejected by the Tennessee Supreme Court in December 2018. Then a new year brought new hope. In January 2019, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted her sentence.
Brown was granted freedom in August of last year and is spending her time as a free woman wisely. Since walking out of prison, her self-claimed mission has been to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and share her story of transformation while bringing awareness to sex trafficking victims.
She made a stop in Birmingham earlier this month to talk about ways to bring attention to the dangers of sex trafficking at an early age.
“I think that trafficking needs to be part of required, continuing education. Everyone who comes into contact with kids needs to have some form of training, once a year, once every year,” Brown said. “Our knowledge about it is changing so rapidly. The kids being in school, they need to have a curriculum. How to have healthy relationships with people, boundaries, and what boundaries are.”
And that means going beyond the classroom. An opinion piece on the website Knox News called on Tennessee’s new Governor Bill Lee to consider clemency for other women in prison for crimes similar to Brown’s.
Following her talk in Birmingham, Brown talked about her own ideas for Tennessee lawmakers.
“I definitely think there should be legislature needs to consider passing a law that says schools needs to start talking about trafficking,” she said. “They need to have this as part of the curriculum because it’s important.”
Brown said those lessons need to go to the heart of what makes kid vulnerable to being trafficking. She said there should be classes that talk about what’s right and what’s not when it comes to relationships.
“They talk social wellness, they talk about emotional wellness. They talk about sexual issues, like what’s not OK,” she said. Healthy relationships, how to have health relationships with people…boundaries.”
Brown will be on parole for 10 years. Conditions of her parole require her to perform at least 50 hours of community service, including working with at-risk youth. She’s spoken in several cities this month, hoping to spread awareness about the dangers of sex-trafficking. A big part of her message: there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.