On January 7, 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to child sex trafficking victim, Cyntoia Brown. For the last 15 years Ms. Brown has been serving a life sentence for killing a 43-year-old real estate agent who bought her for sex when she was 16-years-old. Her case recently gained national attention after celebrities tweeted their support for Ms. Brown’s freedom last year.
Prostitution and sex trafficking are forms of gender-based violence, rooted in a cultural credence that people in power are entitled to buy sex and to access the bodies of anyone they desire, even children. Yet, by law, a child cannot consent to being bought for sex. A child cannot be a prostitute, because sexual exploitation of a minor is child abuse. Under Tennessee state law and federal law, when she was bought and sold for sex at the age of sixteen, Ms. Brown was a per se victim of human trafficking.
Commercial sexual exploitation is an inherently violent, harmful, and traumatic experience, especially for a child whose brain and body are still developing. Research shows that even if someone is prostituted for only a few months, the trauma they experience is lasting and deep. In fact, for our clients, trauma is one of the biggest hurdles to recovery. This is easy to understand when one considers that sex trafficking victims are victims of repeated rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence. Healing often requires years of specialized sexual trauma recovery therapy to address the effects of such trauma.
We do not dispute that Ms. Brown’s actions against the man who bought her for sex when she was a child were indeed unlawful. However, we believe substantial mitigating factors were ignored at her sentencing. First, and most importantly, Ms. Brown was only 16-years old—a child—when the events leading to her conviction occurred. Secondly, at that age, she had already been subjected to repeated, unimaginable trauma. She was sold for sex, repeatedly raped, and physically beaten by her trafficker. These experiences informed Ms. Brown’s interactions with the decedent. However, at the time of Ms. Brown’s crime, Tennessee did not yet have a comprehensive legal definition or social understanding of human trafficking or child sex trafficking, so her trauma was ignored. We believe that if the same crime occurred today, the circumstances surrounding the crime would have been viewed differently by both the fact finder and the judiciary.
In commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, Gov. Haslam has shown the country that child sex trafficking victims are worthy of compassion and a second chance at life. Thank you to everyone who elevated Ms. Brown by tweeting about her case, signing letters in support of her clemency being granted, and talking to your friends and family about how the system failed Ms. Brown when she needed help most. Ms. Brown is scheduled to be released on August 7, 2019, but her story will undoubtedly give hope to survivors of commercial sexual exploitation for years to come.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.