The Biggest Bombshells From Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

A new documentary on Netflix examines the journey of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life in prison for killing a man when she was 16 after her boyfriend had forced her into prostitution

By Natalie Finn Apr 29, 2020 7:32 PMTags
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story Courtesy of Netflix

If you don't know the basic facts of the case, here they are:

On Aug. 6, 2004, Cyntoia Denise Brown was 16 when she shot and killed Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old man whom she said had paid to have sex with her at his Nashville home and whom she thought was about to pull a gun on her. At trial, her lawyer argued that she acted out of self-dense, that her 24-year-old boyfriend had raped her and forced her into prostitution, and she was terrified for her life.

A jury, however, believed the prosecutor who argued that Brown wanted to rob Allen and he was asleep when she shot him. Tried as an adult, Brown—who had been locked up since her arrest on Aug. 8, 2004—was convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder and armed robbery. She was sentenced to life in prison and declared ineligible for parole until she had served 51 years, the only available mercy that Tennessee law provided for.

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Though her plight became a cause célèbre in recent years, with Kim Kardashian—whose tweets about the case in 2017 drew the attention of others with big platforms, including Drake and Rihanna—advocating for clemency for Brown when she visited the White House in 2018, Brown's case was well known in legal justice circles. The 2011 documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story took a deep dive into the circumstances of Brown's life leading up to her association with her pimp, whose street name was "Kut Throat"; the crimes committed, by her and against her; and what couldn't help but look like the severe miscarriage of justice that played out in court, even if one side argued that they were just following the letter of the law.

In prison, Brown got busy achieving what she had missed out on earlier in her life, earning her GED and an associate degree from Lipscomb University with a 4.0 GPA, and then her bachelor's degree as she became a mentor to other imprisoned women. She lost an appeal for a new trial in 2012; in 2017, she petitioned Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency.

After 15 years, a combination of changing times, high-profile media attention and devoted work by the legal advocates that took on Brown's case led to her release from prison in 2019, when the state of Tennessee commuted her sentence to 15 years and she was granted parole, to be followed by 10 years of probation. Haslam also applauded the steps Brown took to turn her life around while she was locked up, and also said that was a key factor in the decision to set her free in the state with the harshest mandatory minimum life sentence terms for a juvenile being treated as an adult.

Nathan Congleton/NBC

But there's always more to a story that involves as many moving pieces as the tragedy of the human experience and the criminal justice system. A new documentary now streaming on Netflix, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, utilizes never-before-seen footage of Cyntoia shot in jail, before, during and after her trial; interviews conducted back then and more recently with her lawyers, doctors, her biological and adoptive mothers, the appellate prosecutor who changed his mind about her deserved fate, and more—all of which serve to provide an inside look at the efforts to keep her out of prison—and the efforts to get her out.

Here are some of the most memorable things we saw and heard:

Courtesy of Netflix

She Was a Child

Not that photos from the court proceedings 16 years ago aren't widely available, but it's still startling to see how young Brown looked at the time, when she declared in court, "I shot him because I thought he was going to shoot me." Her hair pulled back in braided pigtails, she looks as if she should be headed to school in a prim uniform, not wearing an orange jumpsuit. Interviewed in jail, you can see her left arm is crisscrossed with scars.

A Troubled Family History

Brown's biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, said that both her mother and maternal grandmother were suicidal drunks, and that when she was around 7, her mom shot herself (non-fatally) in the stomach while she was in the next room. "I think my mother probably should've had a hysterectomy when she was 16," Joan Warren, Mitchell's mother, says in the film, prompting a laugh from her daughter. "I really think that, because if I had been as educated then as I am now, I probably would not have had my children and put them through what they've gone through. I think a lot of it is genetics."

Lacy Atkins /The Tennessean via AP, Pool

History Repeating Itself

Georgina was 16 when she got pregnant and, already drinking heavily, about 8 months into her pregnancy she tried crack cocaine for the first time. She then started prostituting to pay for her habit, and went to jail for the first time Dec. 13, 1988, when Cyntoia was less than a year old. Mitchell called Cyntoia "a good baby," but she gave her up for adoption when the child was about 2. Growing up, Cyntoia didn't know anything about her biological dad. 

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Cries for Help

Cyntoia was adopted by Ellenette Brown, a teacher. Brown said that when Cyntoia was about 12, she started running away, skipping school and acting out in various ways. 

Asked if she experienced mood swings, Cyntoia told forensic psychiatrist Dr. William Bernet in a jailhouse interview that she could be happy and having fun one minute, then would get depressed and sometimes not be able to stop crying—one time for a week and a half straight.

Courtesy of Netflix

A Disturbing Pattern

Meeting with a psychologist, Cyntoia was asked to attach a story to some pictures presented to her: she saw a violent or chaotic scene in all of them, including one where a man has a woman in his arms and she said he looked like he was trying to force her to kiss him. In another, she sees two girls ganging up on another, using her to get what they wanted.

What Should've Been

Dr. Bernet told Cyntoia's attorney that he felt a stay in a juvenile facility till she was 19 would probably be a sufficient amount of time to help her get a handle on her issues, which he felt invariably contributed to her shooting Allen. She had a "serious personality disorder" that required therapy in a "good, wholesome residential program."

Courtesy of Netflix

She Felt Like She Didn't Matter

At her transfer hearing, after which a judge determined she should be tried as an adult, Cyntoia recalled going back to Allen's house on Aug. 4 after he had picked her up at a Sonic, where she had gone with the intent to find a willing customer for sex, per Kut's demand. They haggled over the price, agreeing on $150. She remembered, after Allen had gone on about his various accomplishments and playing up his importance (and showing her two guns he kept in the house), thinking to herself, "'Who am I? Who am I to him?...' If he does something to me, I'm sitting here thinking, What can I do? I'm in his house, and nobody's gonna know where I'm at...Nobody's gonna know what happened to me. Kut doesn't care."

Nashville Police

Mixed Signals

Heading into the trial, Cyntoia's defense team questioned whether she fully understood her Miranda rights, including her right to remain silent, when she was arrested. According to Cyntoia, the detectives who first interviewed her promised they'd help her out with the prosecution if she told them everything she knew. They maintained that, if anything, they just offered to try to help her out.

Media Matters

Brown's post-conviction relief attorneys were drawn to take on her case after seeing the first documentary about her, Me Facing Life. They set out to find the best experts possible to explain the root of her behavioral issues—including their assertion that she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and suffered lingering effects—and convince the powers that be that she did not get a fair trial the first time around.

Lacy Atkins/Shutterstock

History of Violence

Joan said that she was regularly raped and beaten, and that Georgina was the product of a rape. Georgina said she was molested by a relative of her neighbor growing up, starting when she was 6 or 7 and lasting till she was 10. She guesses that's when she started to hate her own mother, because Joan allowed her to go off with that man.

Becoming a Cause

A Nov. 15, 2017, local news report on a change in Tennessee law inspired by Brown's case that made it no longer possible for a minor to be sentenced as a prostitute went viral, leading to the celebrity attention, "#FreeCyntoiaBrown" making the rounds on social media. By the time of her commutation hearing before the parole board in 2018, countless people were waiting to hear the outcome of her case, and camera crews were lined up outside the courthouse.

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A Changed Mind

Appellate prosecutor Preston Shipp worked on upholding her conviction before meeting Cyntoia in the spring of 2009 when he taught a course she was taking in prison. He couldn't believe the girl in the case file was the "luminous" young woman in his class. "Time and proximity are funny things because they can change adversaries into allies," Shipp said 10 year later, by her side at the parole hearing, arguing in her favor."

"What I did was horrible," Brown told the board, taking responsibility for her actions. "I killed Johnny Allen, he's gone, and it's stayed with me this whole time. I was locked up at 16, like that was it. I have no choice but to live a different life."

One of her post-relief attorneys says in the film, referring to the tragedy of Cyntoia's nearly nonexistent childhood, "She didn't have a chance before she was born. She didn't have a chance after she was born."

Thanks to a variety of forces that came together, not least of which was Cyntoia's will to better her life no matter where she had to live it, she has that chance now.

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is streaming now on Netflix.