On the facts of the case, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than Cyntoia Brown murdered real estate agent Johnny Allen in cold blood and robbed him in 2004. The question of what in her life prepared her to commit such a heinous act is an important one. “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it” is an old truism (one I’m fond of repeating in lecture). At the same time, this is a society in which individuals are held responsible for the choices they make. An explanation is not an excuse.
Brown taking up with Garion McGlothen, a small-time gangster in Nashville, turning to prostitution to support their lifestyle, and then murdering Allen in his own home, occurred in the span of a few months. I don’t know what the evidence is showing Brown transformed into a murderer under McGlothen’s influence (I understand that they were together for only around three weeks). She has made a lot of accusation against McGlothen, claiming he beat and choked her, but McGlothen isn’t alive to respond to these charges; he was murdered in 2005. I see a motive to kill Allen for his money and property to support their lifestyle. This case has all the hallmarks of an instrumental crime, not an expressive one.
As many murderers do, Brown lied about the circumstances under which she shot and killed Allen, at first claiming it was self-defense. Some news stories repeat the lie as if it were still a credible interpretation of events. But the evidence doesn’t support that view. When that lie didn’t work, Brown changed her story – or, one could reasonable say, she lied again. She did admit she stole Allen’s guns to pawn for money. She also stole his truck (McGlothen reportedly wanted a truck). Brown isn’t the first prostitute to murder a john and steal his property. The most famous case was Aileen Wuornos who, between 1989 and 1990, shot and killed seven men. She, too, claimed it was in self-defense. Wuornos was executed by the state of Florida in 2002.
Allen was found nude, lying face down on a bloody bed, shot in the back of the head. Video recorded statements at the time of her arrest find Brown admitting to lying to Allen about her age. She told authorities that while Allen slept, she left the room, found his gun collection, then returned to the bedroom and shot him while he slept. This is a telling sequence of events. Despite claiming that she was worried Allen was going to do something, Brown also told police, “I didn’t think the dude was gonna do something, he seemed like a pretty nice guy.” Investigators said that the placement of his hands indicated that Allen was sleeping when he was murdered.
According to court documents, Brown told her mother in a telephone conversation that she had “executed” the victim. A memorandum from US District Court by judge John Trice Nixon (a Carter appointee) cites court documents showing that Brown told a nurse at the pre-trial confinement center: “I shot that man in the back of the head one time, bitch, I’m gonna shoot you in the back of the head three times. I’d love to hear your blood splatter on the wall.” That memorandum also states that defense counsel was unable to produce evidence of Brown being on the FAS spectrum, a claim they have made. Her diminished capacity not withstanding, she earned an associates degree from Lipscomb University and is now working on her bachelors.
Brown, now thirty, has apparently turned herself around, and is a good candidate for parole under any reasonable system. Fourteen years is close to the outer limit for most modern democratic societies, even for the awful crime of murder. While in prison, she appears to have been rehabilitated. In a fair process, she is an excellent candidate for parole. If clemency is granted, I think that is a fair substitute for parole. She has been prison long enough.
However, the way this case has been covered in the media has distorted circumstances and obscured questions of responsibility and public safety. Some stories make it appear that Brown killed her “captor.” Allen did not kidnap Brown. She accepted an invitation to go home with him. This was a voluntary encounter. Other stories dwell on McGlothen’s nickname (“Kutthroat”) while denying Brown agency. Much as Netflix’s Making a Murderer series (first airing in 2015) sensationalized and created sympathy for Teresa Haibach’s murderer Steven Avery, the 2011 documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story helped bring Brown’s story to a mass audience. The #MeToo phenomenon, the moral panic over sex trafficking, and well-placed celebrities, put her story in the headlines. The emerging narrative is that Brown is a heroic young woman who killed her oppressor. This frame leaves the observer with the impression that Allen’s death was justifiable homicide. The facts tell a very different story: this was intentional murder and robbery.
Had Brown been allowed to get away with this heinous act, or released from prison before the rehabilitative work had been done, there would be good reason to be concerned for the safety of others. She committed a horrific crime and was a public menace. She had a long history of violence. The state has an obligation to protect society from persons like Brown, to hold responsible persons who commit such criminal acts, and to rehabilitate such persons so they can reenter society as law-abiding citizens.
A criminological note: Crime of this nature starts to peak at 16 years of age; Brown sits comfortably on the age-crime curve in a society with an unusually high violent crime rate – in a city that for years now has been one of the most dangerous in the United States. She ran away from home and became part of Nashville’s culture of violence. Society also bears responsibility for this tragic reality.