After months of consideration, Gov. Bill Haslam has granted full clemency to Cyntoia Brown, saying the Nashville woman convicted of murder while still a teenager has taken "extraordinary steps" to transform her life.
The decision means that Brown, who has served 15 years in prison, will be released in August after completing a re-entry program. She'll remain on parole until 2029.
Haslam's decision to commute Brown's sentence comes after mounting local and national pressure. A federal appeals court has been considering whether Tennessee's requirement that Brown serve at least 51 years of a life sentence is too harsh. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that most life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual.
Brown was convicted in 2006 for the killing of Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had picked her up at a drive-through restaurant and taken her home. Brown was 16 at the time of the murder and contends she feared for her life. Advocates for Brown have argued that, as a teen who was being sex trafficked, she should not have been tried as an adult and given a life sentence.
In a statement explaining his decision to grant clemency, Haslam noted her circumstances and added that he had been impressed by her efforts at rehabilitiation while in prison. Those include earning a high school diploma and an associate's degree, as well as being lauded by prison employees and volunteers for changing personally.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh,” Haslam said. “Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”
In a statement, Brown thanked her instructors and lawyers for their work on her behalf:
"I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received," she said. "We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without Him. Let today be a testament to His Saving Grace.
"Thank you to my family for being a backbone these past 14 years. I am thankful to my lawyers and their staffs, and all the others who, for the last decade have freely given of their time and expertise to help me get to this day.
"I love all of you and will be forever grateful.
"With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."
Brown's case resonated beyond Tennessee, especially after the pop star Rihanna tweeted her support. Shortly after the clemency announcement, another celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, tweeted her thanks that Brown would be released.
Thank you Governor Haslam https://t.co/rAiru84fgn
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) January 7, 2019
WPLN senior editor Chas Sisk contributed to this report.