NEW ORLEANS (February 14, 2020) – Since her release from prison last fall, author and criminal justice reform advocate Cyntoia Brown is determined to “tell the world about God” to keep the vow she made.
Speaking before a jam-packed crowd in Georges Auditorium on Feb. 4, Brown recalled the series of events that led her from adoptee to runaway to convicted killer to prisoner to prison reform advocate.
“Through all of this, I learned to reach beyond my breaking point on the road to redemption,” Brown said. “Whenever you find yourself trapped, [and] it seems like there is no way out of your situation, and it seems like God has forgotten about you, know that his timing is impeccable.”
She added, “God is real and is still very much in the miracle business. If he did it for me, he will do it for you.”
In 2004, at age 16, Brown killed Johnny Allen, 43, of Nashville, who paid her for sex. Although she claimed self-defense, two years later she was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. She served 15 years before she was granted clemency by then-Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee in 2018 and released a year later, on Aug. 7, 2019.
Brown, who said she was born to a teenage alcoholic and then adopted by a couple, recalled a “seed of doubt” being planted early in her spirit.
“It was my first day of elementary school, and my classmates asked me why I didn’t look like my two dark-skinned parents,” she said. “Although my parents never made me feel like I didn’t belong, I saw life through a different lens at that moment and saw that I was different from everyone else around me.”
She said this became a recurring theme as loneliness and insecurities absorbed her.
She had her first glance of the unfair criminal justice system at 12 when she was sent to a juvenile detention center after being kicked out of an alternative school.
“It didn’t seem fair at all for me to end up here all because of what started out as NoDoz pills,” Brown said. “This situation only reinforced the fact that I was not like everyone else around me.”
Even so, the 32-year-old said she felt relief when she was placed in a juvenile facility at 12: “It was easier to be in the company of those like me than to be the bad egg who was singled out.”
Her feelings of neglect led to what she referred to as the point where “things took a turn for the worse”: She ran away at 13.
“I ran away in search of a place where I felt like I belonged,” said Brown. She was surrounded by adults, which ended up being “the most traumatic and chaotic experience ever.”
“I ended up being raped, assaulted and sold by the man who I thought I loved,” Brown said. Her need to feel wanted placed her in the hands of the man who would become her trafficker, or “pimp.”
Brown said she so badly wanted him to love her that she would do anything he told her to do, including prostitution.
“Every time, I was hoping to be received with open arms, thinking he would be happy to see what I brought to the table,” she said. “However, my best was never good enough, and no dollar amount would make him love me.”
On Aug. 7, 2004, Brown was sent away from their hotel room for the last time. Allen picked up Brown for sex, and she fatally shot him.
Brown said at age 16, she was placed in solitary confinement for two years, “where it was just [her] and God for 23 hours a day.”
The 24th hour would be spent “handcuffed, shackled, taken to the shower and left out in the open.” She said she needed a miracle to avoid spending the rest of her life in prison.
“I felt like a wild horse that was just wrangled from the mountains, and I couldn’t loosen the rope they placed around my neck.”
Brown started praying, asking God to create a miracle as he did for others. Shortly after, she was officially convicted and sentenced to life in prison; in Tennessee, that meant serving 51 years before she could be considered for release.
Brown said she vowed to God, “If you get me out of here, I will tell the world about you.”
Brown decided she was tired of feeling like a failure. She enrolled in a program that allowed inmates to obtain college credits, ultimately earning an associate’s and bachelor’s degree with a cumulative 4.0 grade-point average. She said she began to thrive in a system that was designed to break her.
After her final appeal was denied in January 2017, she received a letter from Texas resident Jamie Long, who wrote, “God is bigger than any judge, jury or statute.” She said Long told her to prepare herself because she soon would be released.
Brown said Long helped her build her faith in God, and she said she came to learn that Jesus never fails. Brown filed for clemency, knowing 99 percent of applicants are not even considered.
Long told her she would be given a court date, and as a leap of faith, Brown began giving away her things to fellow inmates. Two weeks later, Brown was given a court date.
She said, “The support for my case grew tremendously, beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
Six months into her case, Brown said she heard from no one but began having prophetic dreams.
“I dreamt that I was being released from prison, and it was a dark, rainy night,” she said. “I had this same dream twice, so I would watch the weather and wait for the rainy days to come.”
On Jan. 7, 2019, she was told to report to the visitation area by an officer.
“I stepped outside, and it was a clear, sunny day,” Brown said. “But as I continued walking, small drops of rain started falling, and I thought back to my dreams.” When she made it to the visitation area, her attorney was waiting to tell her she would be released Aug. 7, 2019.
“My release date finally came, and uncommonly, I was released in the middle of the night, and it was very dark and had been storming,” said Brown. “I never imagined any of this unfolding the way it did.”
Upon her release, Brown married Long and speaks in various venues. She also has written a book, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.”