“You are getting out in August.”
Those were the first words Cyntoia Brown heard from her lawyers Monday, when Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency.
"I’ve known Cyntoia since the day after she was arrested, and I’ve never seen the peace and joy on her face that I saw today," Kathryn Sinback, Brown’s attorney in juvenile court, told reporters .
Brown has already served 15 years of a life sentence for the murder of Johnny Allen, who she claims paid her for sex. Brown was 16 at the time and she contends she killed him in self-defense.
Since her conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled most life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual. And 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.
Haslam said he too believes a life sentence was too long for Brown. In explaining his decision to grant her clemency, he also praised her rehabilitation.
Brown is 30 now and mentors troubled youth. She already completed an associate's degree while behind bars, and is working on a bachelor's.
In a written statement, Brown said she will do everything she can to justify the governor’s faith in her.
"My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been," the statement read.
The outgoing governor’s decision to commute her sentence comes after mounting national pressure from celebrities, politicians and criminal justice advocates.
Brown’s case could serve as legal precedent for others involving sex trafficking and minors, says Derri Smith, the executive director of End Slavery Tennessee.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has already made several key rulings. First of all, not reasonable to sentence minor with a life sentence," Smith said. "And the fact that we have a cultural mind-shift obviously recognizing the effects of trauma and the exploitation that’s involved has got to have an impact on future legal decisions."
In the meantime, Brown’s own future, post release, is still in question.
She’ll get out of prison in August, and she'll be on parole for the next ten years. As part of her commutation, she’ll need to complete her bachelor’s degree, maintain employment and continue her community service.
State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, says she wants to make sure Brown has the appropriate support once she is out of prison.
"When she's released, I think she's going to need a lot of resources so that she will not ever have to look back and think that 'I will have to resort to prostitution to put bread on my table or have a roof over my head,' " Gilmore said.