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For a teen’s impulsive, unthinkable act, Cyntoia Brown got an adult’s life sentence. Was justice served?

Life Begins at Sixteen



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By August 2006, Cyntoia had shorn her long, wavy black hair. She wore it short now, pinned back until it erupted in unruly curls. Plentiful snacks and inactivity had caused her to gain weight. Her weeklong trial later that month was receiving considerable media attention as news cameras focused on the young woman, wearing a sensible light-blue pantsuit over a floral blouse. Her face, through much of the trial, was expressionless.

The prosecution called dozens of witnesses. Medical examiner Amy McMaster testified that, in her opinion, Johnny Allen died in the same position in which he was shot — he couldn't move, she said. The way his fingers intertwined and the severe damage the slug caused the brain led her to the conclusion.

If the medical examiner's answer seemed strikingly unequivocal given what little is known about how the human brain responds to a gunshot wound to the head — consider the remarkable progress of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — it was for a reason. Dr. Richard Miller, medical director of the trauma unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the type of wound Allen received is "universally fatal." But variability exists in how long a person will survive. Some linger for days. Some are able to move voluntarily for a short time. Some maintain primitive reflexes. Some die immediately. In an email, Miller spoke generally, but one message was clear: There is no rule of thumb.

If Cyntoia thought Allen was reaching for a gun as she suggested to police, where was it, assistant district attorney Jeff Burks asked. None was ever found. Less convenient to Burks' argument, though, was the canvas magazine holster that held one fully loaded clip found in the bedside table.

In the weeks following the murder, a number of stories had been advanced as media buzzed around the young black girl who'd slain the white real estate agent. One piece in The Tennessean speculated in a headline, "Slain man may have been [a] good Samaritan." The story quoted a former co-worker: "God probably put him in her path to make a choice." She said Allen probably "was the one person who was going to help her turn her life around. That's sad."

Of course, there was one big problem with that theory: His state of complete undress. In fact, the defense — attorneys Wendy Tucker and Rich McGee — were prepared to bring forth two witnesses who might besmirch Allen's otherwise burnished reputation.

The first was a 17-year-old McGavock student named Jessica Snyder, who worked as a server at the Ole Dinner Bell on Lebanon Pike. She said Allen was a regular and that she and the other waitresses often fought over who'd have to serve him because he made them all uncomfortable. At one point, he handed her his Crye-Leike business card. On the back he'd written, "You're gorgeous. I'd love to take you out sometime, so let me know." Her father, Snyder said, was furious. But Judge Randall Wyatt Jr. characterized her testimony as "irrelevant" and wouldn't allow the jury to hear it.

The next witness was a woman who met Allen in a Mexican restaurant with a few friends after he kept winking at her from a nearby table. She and her friends invited him over and struck up a conversation. She mentioned she was looking for a new church to attend, and Allen recommended his own, Lakewood Church of Christ. He was a youth minister and Sunday school teacher there.

The woman attended his classes a few times and finally agreed to see a movie with him. She had him pick her up at a friend's house to head off any uncomfortable come-in-for-coffee moments. He took her to his place instead, saying he wanted her to see his house. He gave her a guided tour and eventually showed her into the bedroom and began kissing her. In court, the woman testified that she pushed him away, but something in his eyes frightened her. "After he gave me the look, and I can't explain that look because — today I can still see it."

She asked him to stop, but he didn't seem to hear her. When Allen finished, she asked him to take her back to her friend's place. She never told anyone about the alleged rape. In fact, she was a compelling witness at trial because she had no desire to be in court that day. She'd resisted showing up at all until she received a subpoena. She wanted to leave Allen and what he'd done to her in the past.

"I was too ashamed," she testified. "I guess I blame myself for it."

Next, the prosecution played the tape recording of Cyntoia's conversation with her mother, saying she "executed" Allen. Burks called to the witness stand the nurse Cyntoia had assaulted, allegedly saying she'd shoot her "three times" in the head like she did "that man." Prosecutors presented to the jury a bizarre document found by the police in Cyntoia's room at the InTown Suites, apparently written in her girlish hand. It was titled "New Personality Profile."

Burks offered the document, which contained no indication of when it was written, as proof she was planning to make good her escape by adopting the identity of one "Shoniera Renee Hicks," a fictitious person. The document was an amalgam of mangled common proverbs and thoughts on her life. It wasn't clear whether it indicated intent to adopt a new identity because of the crime she committed or, if written before, it was the blueprint of who she'd like to be someday: "Sweet, shy, quiet unless spoken to, sexy, intellectual, appealing."

The most devastating testimony, however, came from Richard Reed, Cyntoia's neighbor at InTown. Sam Humphrey couldn't be called to testify — he'd been shot to death outside his apartment a few months after Cyntoia was arrested. The statements she allegedly made to him were damning — a "fat lick" and $50,000 — even though neither existed.

It bears mentioning that a component of borderline personality disorder is an overwhelming desire to impress others. The jury wouldn't have heard that, though, because McGee and Tucker didn't call Dr. Bernet to testify. They chose not to put Cyntoia on the stand, either. The jury would never hear about the rapes, Cut's abuse, her troubled family history or any of the other elements of her life that informed who she'd become. What they were left with was Cyntoia committing a murder in a vacuum, uninfluenced by the world she inhabited.

Not surprisingly, the jury returned the only verdict they could, given what they knew: Guilty.

The 2009 spring semester at the Tennessee Prison for Women had drawn to a close, so the Lipscomb students threw a party. They brought whatever Cyntoia and the other inmates requested: snack trays of cheese and crackers, pizzas and bottles of soda. By now the traditional students had overcome their initial trepidation around the inmates, and the inmates had grown comfortable around the students. Some would form friendships extending beyond the classroom.

But while the other students socialized and munched on pizza, Cyntoia and professor Preston Shipp stole away to the visitor's gallery and sat down at a table. They hadn't spoken much in the few months that had passed since she and Shipp had discovered the currency they shared.

Shipp could've guessed how Cyntoia would react to the devastating news — that the man she'd come to look up to had helped keep her in prison and upheld the kind of sentencing that ignores the very nuances he'd come to advocate.

"In class we were pretty harshly criticizing the current system," Shipp says. "And here she comes and finds out I'm a cog in the wheel that led her to being in there for the rest of her life."

Cyntoia didn't find out until a day or so after Shipp had. She'd received the opinion of the appeals court, saw little aside from the word "affirmed" and was too upset to read further. But the next day, she pored through it. There was her case number; a brief summary of the issues she raised on appeal and the court's opinion; the names of the appellate judges, her attorneys and —her professor? He was the assistant attorney general? It was like the floor dropped out of her cell. Had he known all this time? She felt betrayed.

"I had come to know him as a friend, but this friend was fighting against me obtaining my freedom," Cyntoia says.

For the two remaining months of class, Cyntoia continued to be his most outstanding student. Despite having not regularly attended school past the seventh grade, she turned in written work at a level he'd expect from a college junior. Rather than backing into a thesis like most undergrads, she approached the writing with a fully formed idea. He suspected she went through multiple revisions — a level of development he rarely saw.

But Cyntoia never quite showed the personality she had before she knew. She was quieter, and Shipp wasn't sure if it was because of him and everything he once stood for — still stood for — or if she was depressed by the rejected appeal.

As they sat outside the party, Shipp told Cyntoia something that had been nagging him.

"It's such a drastic difference between what you read about in that trial transcript and the person I got to be friends with," he says. "And so I wanted to express to her how that was difficult to reconcile these two people in my mind — one who'd commit this terribly violent act and was caught up in all sorts of bad stuff and this new person I'd gotten to know.

"It was very difficult for me to think it was the same person."

Cyntoia's story had forced the retired prosecutor to reappraise the criminal justice system and the place he used to occupy in it. He'd never heard about the multiple rapes she endured in the weeks leading up to Johnny Allen's murder. He never knew about Georgina or the abduction or Cyntoia's occasionally violent home life. He hadn't heard any of it — that is, until he became friends with Cyntoia. He wondered what that could mean for other cases he'd argued against.

"Now that I've gotten to know Cyntoia as a person and have heard the story, there's a lot of information that the jury didn't hear and the judge didn't hear and I didn't hear when I was reading the transcript," he says. "Because you don't hear about the life she'd been living the year prior. You don't hear about what her childhood was like."

Shipp could see that girl was gone. A thoughtful young woman who's now reading The Brothers Karamazov, a young woman bent on understanding the world, if only from a cell — had taken her place.

A mutual admiration had formed, and with it a singular act of reconciliation spanning the aisle that once separated Assistant Attorney General Preston Shipp from inmate Cyntoia Brown.

"After I sat down and thought about it, I threw it all out the window," Cyntoia says. "He's my friend."


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