Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story
By Alicia Benjamin
When we see Cyntoia Brown in the opening scenes of the Netflix film, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, she very obviously needs help. She’s a 16-year-old adolescent runaway who slurs her words and pleads to be understood after killing a man.
Brown, who had been beaten, pimped and raped while living on the streets in Nashville, became involved with a 23-year-old man known as Cut-Throat who forced Brown to work as a prostitute.
In August of 2004, 43-year-old Johnny Allen solicited Brown for sex, then took her to his East Nashville home where Brown shot Allen because she said she feared for her life. “I shot him because I thought he was gonna shoot me,” she said.
Looking like a defenseless child at the juvenile detention center, Brown recounts the dark times she experienced with Cut-Throat and the murder that landed her in prison.
“I never really felt like anybody really loved me,” she said. “I feel old, tired and weary.”
As we view Brown’s case through the lens of time and the heightened advocacy for sex trafficking victims over the past several years, we recognize that Tennessee’s juvenile justice system failed to serve Cyntoia Brown.
“In 2004 she was considered a prostitute,” said Brown’s attorney Charles Bone. “Today, she would be considered a victim of sexual predators.”
Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green could have given Brown a second chance by assigning her case to the juvenile court system. Instead, Green chose to transfer Brown’s case to the adult system. In Tennessee, juvenile offenders convicted as adults for first-degree murder must receive a minimum sentence of 51 years before becoming eligible for parole. These are the strictest juvenile sentencing guidelines in the nation.
When celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian heard about Brown’s case, they demanded justice for Brown, using #FreeCyntoiaBrown, a hashtag that went viral on social media.
After losing all of her court appeals, Brown and her legal team filed a petition for clemency in December of 2017, which Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam mercifully granted in 2019. Cyntoia was released from the Tennessee Prison for Women on August 7, 2019, when she was 31 years old.
Filmmaker Daniel H. Birman, who also directed a 2011 PBS documentary about Brown, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, does a fine job in the Netflix film of presenting Brown through the various stages of her journey to freedom. We see her grow from a broken and sad girl to a self-assured, educated and mature woman.
The documentary gives an objective look at Brown’s life and all the players in it. Brown’s estranged biological mother Georgina Mitchell recounts her past as a child sexual abuse victim and the daily alcohol she drank the entire time she was pregnant. Brown’s adopted mother Ellenette Brown presents a steady figure in the girl’s life, but was never able to stop Brown’s reckless, impulsive behavior.
Brown told The Root that she never authorized the making of Birman’s documentary. But she’s forging ahead with her own plans to make a film based on her book, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.”
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is a heartbreaking and poignant portrayal of Brown’s transformation from a lost child who was abused by men and neglected by the judicial system, to an educated, confident and compassionate young woman who serves as an advocate for sex trafficking victims and criminal justice reform.