Cyntoia Brown's imprisonment became an international cause when news of the severity of her incarceration, which began at age 16, hit social media in 2017. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Cara Delevingne and Snoop Dogg took to Twitter to share her story with the masses.
Her life tale has now become one that encapsulates not only the problems with the US justice system but also how we treat victims of sexual crimes, especially when they don't conform to our preconceived notion of what a victim should be like. This is what Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story seeks to tell.
When Cyntoia Brown was arrested, she was 16 years old and had long been under the thumb of a 24-year-old pimp. In 2004, she killed a man named Johnny Allen for which she was found guilty of first-degree murder – which carries a minimum life sentence with the possibility of parole after 51 years.
At the time she wasn't seen as a victim of sex-trafficking and abuse but instead as a prostitute whose motive for the murder was robbery. Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, made by Daniel H Birman, follows Brown through interviews with her, as well as her adoptive mother, biological mother and biological grandmother, amongst others involved in Brown's case and footage of the trials.
After many legal battles, Brown was granted clemency in 2019, her sentence commuted to 15 years, which resulted in her getting out of prison in August, six months from the commutation.
But because Birman's work with Brown stopped sometime earlier, the documentary doesn't follow Cyntoia's life since her release.
In fact, Brown had nothing to do with the Netflix documentary at all. She wrote on social media: "While I was still incarcerated, a producer who has old footage of me made a deal with Netflix for an UNAUTHORIZED documentary, set to be released soon.
"My husband and I were as surprised as everyone else when we first heard the news because we did not participate in any way. However, I am currently in the process of sharing my story, in the right way, in full detail, and in a way that depicts and respects the woman I am today.
"While I pray that this film highlights things wrong in our justice system, I had nothing to do with this documentary."
Her aforementioned husband is Jaime Long, a Christian singer who she credits with helping her find her way to God and peace. She said (via Tufts Daily): "I was told everything about my existence should revolve around pleasing a man, and the men that I was introduced to, I was supposed to put them … on a pedestal, and when I met Jaime, he was like, 'Wait a minute. That’s not what this is. You don’t live for me. You live your life for Christ.'
"And I was like, 'Wow, that’s completely different.' And that’s what showed me God is with you, all the time. Now, I get to spend my days with my best friend, with my partner. My husband, he’s everything to me. He’s awesome."
During her incarceration, Brown worked on her memoir Free Cyntoia, which was released in October 2019. She also began work on prison reform whilst incarcerated, and continues to advocate for social justice.
She created the Grassroots Learning Initiative for Teen Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape (GLITTER), which led her to a more politically active role. She said: "When I saw that there [were] things that needed to be changed, I didn’t want to sit in the classroom and just be talking.
"I didn’t want to say, ‘this isn’t right in the system, this shouldn’t be this way.' I started having conversations with people, and next thing you know, I’m sitting in a prison visitation area with a state representative, talking about a bill that he’s going to represent on my behalf to change the sentencing of juveniles."
People often ask how they can help change the system. Yesterday I testified before TN Senate Judiciary committee urging lawmakers to change current law. Reach out to Legislators in your own state and you can do the same! Get involved. Your voice matters! https://t.co/3SfntmpwQX— Cyntoia Brown Long (@cyntoia_brown) February 26, 2020
On February 25, 2020, Brown testified in front of the Tennessee Senate for the passage of a new bill, SB 69, by Democratic State Senator Raumesh Akbari in Memphis. The bill would reduce the amount of time a juvenile who is serving a life sentence with parole would have to wait to find out if they’re eligible from 51 to 30 years.
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story also doesn't reveal that Brown's former pimp Garion McGlothen (referred to as Kut or Kut Throat) was shot and killed on March 30, 2005, however his story was part of Birman's first documentary: Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story.
For more insight into Brown-Long's work, following her on social media is a good bet. She is a vocal advocate for reform and social justice, and her story is certainly inspiring, if not also a scathing indictment of the so-called justice system.
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is out on Netflix now
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