Cyntoia Brown, who murdered her sexual abuser at 16, released from prison and will now help other girls like her

Update: Cyntoia Brown has been granted full clemency and released from prison after serving 15 years for killing a man who bought her for sex at age 16.

Brown requested no media availability on the day of her release (smart girl), but released this public statement:

"While first giving honor to God who made all of this possible, I would also like to thank my many supporters who have spoken on my behalf and prayed for me. I'm blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come. I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation. I thank Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me and with the Lord's help I will make them as well as the rest of my supporters proud."

Welcome back to freedom, Cyntoia.

Brown's case has tested the limits of our justice system and gained the attention of criminal justice reform advocates and celebrities alike. Here's a rundown of the basics of her case:

Brown was born to a mother who abused drugs and alcohol and placed her up for adoption. As a teen, Brown ran away from her adoptive family and was taken in by a pimp who raped her and forced her into prostitution. In 2004, a 43-year-old real estate agent, Johnny Allen, paid $150 to have sex with Brown—then 16—and took her to his home.


Brown claims that she thought the man was going to kill her, so she shot him. Prosecutors claim she killed the man in his sleep in order to steal from him, as she took money, firearms, and the man's car when she fled the murder scene.

Despite being a minor and an alleged victim of sex trafficking, Brown was tried as an adult, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Under Tennessee law, her first chance at parole would not arrive until 2055—when Brown would be in her late 60s.

But as one of his final acts in office, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam has granted Brown full clemency. Brown was released from prison on August 7, 2019 and will live under supervised parole for ten years.

Brown's case raised important questions about how we administer justice when convicted criminals are victims themselves—especially when they are underaged.

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There is no question that Brown killed Allen. The question is how she should pay for that crime when she was legally a child at the time and the victim of multiple crimes herself. At 16, Brown was under the control of a violent pimp known as "Kut Throat," who raped her himself and was trafficking her for sex. The age of consent in Tennessee was (and still is) 18, so Allen was guilty not only of soliciting Brown as a prostitute, but also of raping her.

Should a child who has been exploited and victimized in so many ways pay the same price as an adult? In a truly just system, would a child who was the victim of heinous crimes not be granted some grace for killing someone who played an active role in her victimization?

These are the questions about Brown's case that drew advocates from across the social justice landscape to defend her as a sex trafficking victim, including Rihanna, Lebron James, and Amy Schumer.

Brown says she will use her freedom to help young girls avoid finding themselves in situations like hers.

Governor Haslam said in a statement regarding his clemency order:

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown's sentence, subject to certain conditions."

Those conditions include undergoing counseling, getting a job, and completing community service hours.

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Brown has spent part of her 15 years in prison studying, earning excellent grades in her courses, and is slated to complete her bachelor's degree from Lipscomb University in May 2019.

In a statement, Brown said, “Thank you, Governor Haslam, for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me." She also thanked "those at the Tennessee Department of Corrections who saw something in me worth salvaging..."

Brown hopes to make a difference in the lives of girls who may find themselves in circumstances like hers. "With God's help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people," she said. "My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."

Imprisonment is meant to keep civilized society safe from dangerous criminals. Clearly this woman is not a danger to society, and keeping her behind bars would be a gross misuse of our justice system. Kudos to Governor Haslam for doing the right thing, and best of luck to Ms. Brown with her newfound freedom.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Those of us raising teenagers now didn't grow up with social media. Heck, the vast majority of us didn't even grow up with the internet. But we know how ubiquitous social media, with all of its psychological pitfalls, has become in our own lives, so it's not a big stretch to imagine the incredible impact it can have on our kids during their most self-conscious phase.

Sharing our lives on social media often means sharing the highlights. That's not bad in and of itself, but when all people are seeing is everyone else's highlight reels, it's easy to fall into unhealthy comparisons. As parents, we need to remind our teens not to do that—but we also need to remind them that other people will do that, which is why kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness are so important.

Writer and mother of three teen daughters, Whitney Fleming, shared a beautiful post on Facebook explaining what we need to teach our teenagers about empathy in the age of social media, and how we ourselves can serve as an example.

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