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In 2004, Tennessee sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to 51 years in prison for the first-degree murder of her abuser. She was 16 years old.
Seven years after her sentencing, filmmaker Dan Birman released a 2011 documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, which features interviews with Brown. She reportedly explains in the movie that she was being sex-trafficked by a pimp named “Kutthroat,” who had allegedly forced her into prostitution. According to Brown, the shooting of Johnny Allen was an act of self defense after the 43-year-old solicited her services at a fast food restaurant, drove her to his house, and frightened her with his behavior. Brown’s testimony makes the court’s decision to sentence her to any prison time at all seem confusing, at best.
Now, six years after the documentary first aired, Brown’s story has gone viral with a slew of celebrity support. It started with a tweet from Kim Kardashian on Tuesday. She shared an image with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, and said she had called her lawyers this week “to see what can be done to fix” Brown’s situation.
Later that same morning, Rihanna wrote in an Instagram post, “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” Rappers T.I. and Rick Ross have both since called for Brown’s release as well.
The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?? cause..... Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child's sentence I hope to God you don't have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already! #FREECYNTOIABROWN #HowManyMore
A post shared by badgalriri (@badgalriri) on
Our community gets hit with governmental intrusion into the black community far too often. Trust me, I know first hand. Intrusion that depleted black people of the right to fairly live their lives in the pursuit of happiness that The constitution grants us all. But when our children are victimized and criminalized due to lack of legal protection under the law, we must stand and do something. Young #CyntoiaBrown was only 16 and has spent the last 12 years of a life sentence behind bars for a crime she have never served a day in jail for after being a victim of #sextrafficking. Something needs to be done and we should stop she gets justice. #FreeCyntoiaBrown
A post shared by Rick Ross (@freewayricky) on
With millions of followers between the celebrities, it didn’t take long for #FreeCyntoiaBrown to go viral on Twitter and Instagram. A MoveOn petition calling for a presidential pardon of Brown’s case has gotten over 200,000 signatures in 24 hours.
Those interested in learning more about the case can watch the documentary on YouTube.
Christine Friar is a writer and editor in New York who focuses on streaming entertainment and internet culture. Her work has appeared in the Awl, the Fader, New York Magazine, Paper Magazine, Vogue, Elle, and more.