NASHVILLE — Fifteen years after Cyntoia Brown was charged with murder, the woman who says she was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim when she killed a man in 2004 is no longer under a life sentence.
Following years of national attention from criminal justice advocates, celebrities and politicians calling for mercy — and just days before he is to leave office — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday granted clemency to the now 30-year-old Brown.
“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,” Haslam said in his statement.
Brown will remain on parole supervision for 10 years on the condition she does not violate any state or federal laws, holds a job, and participates in regular counselling sessions. She is now 30 years old.
Brown will remain on parole supervision for 10 years on the condition she does not violate any state or federal laws, holds a job, and participates in regular counselling sessions.
While law enforcement officials had opposed clemency, arguing Brown was not justified in killing 43-year-old Johnny Allen, celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and singer Rihanna spoke out for Brown. The governor’s office received thousands of phone calls and emails from supporters.
“Thank you Governor Haslam,” Kardashian West tweeted soon after news of the clemency decision broke. Similar high-profile responses poured in from former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, actresses Alyssa Milano and Viola Davis.
Brown was convicted in 2006 of murdering Allen, a Nashville real estate agent. Police said she shot Allen in the back of the head at close range with a gun she brought to rob him after he picked her up at a drive-in theatre in Nashville to have sex with her.
Brown’s lawyers contended she was a victim of sex trafficking who not only feared for her life but also lacked the mental capacity to be culpable in the slaying because she was impaired by her mother’s alcohol use while she was in the womb.
According to court documents, Brown ran away from her adoptive family in Nashville in 2004 and began living in a hotel with a man known as “Cut Throat,” who forced her to become a prostitute. Court documents say he verbally, physically and sexually assaulted her.
One night, Allen picked up Brown at a Sonic Drive-In and she agreed to engage in sexual activity for $150. Once at his place, Brown eventually got into Allen’s bed. Brown told authorities she thought he was reaching for a gun, so she shot him with a handgun from her purse.
She took two of his guns and his money from his wallet before fleeing the scene.
Brown expressed thanks in a statement released Monday by her legal team.
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers, and encouragement I have received. We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings. The Lord has held my hand this whole time and I would have never made it without him,” Brown said. “Let today be a testament to his saving grace.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Yet, the state of Tennessee argued successfully in lower courts that Brown’s sentence was not in violation of federal law because Brown did have a possibility for parole: She was sentenced to serve at least 51 years of her life sentence.
“We need to see this as a national awakening to change the draconian laws that allow juveniles, children, to be placed in adult prisons when they’re just children. They’re not little adults,” said Houston Gordon, one of Brown’s lead attorneys.
While in prison, Brown completed her GED and took college classes. She is currently one course away from finishing a bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb University.
Nashville Mayor David Briley praised Haslam’s decision, calling it a “great day for social justice and our city.” Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said the clemency announcement shows that Tennessee “can show love, compassion and mercy” for people who have experienced trauma.
Haslam’s decision comes as he’s considering his next political move in Tennessee now that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he won’t seek re-election in 2020. It’s not yet clear how the clemency decision may affect Haslam’s already solid popularity throughout the state.
In contrast to Democrats, Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers remained markedly quiet on Haslam’s decision.
Gov.-elect Bill Lee offered a brief statement, saying he “respected” Haslam’s choice in the complex case and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he “appreciated” the process the governor went through to arrive at his decision.
Ed Yarbrough, another attorney for Brown, joked at a Monday press conference that he was brought on as the “token Republican” in Brown’s case.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Gov. Haslam for having the wisdom and the compassion to do what he did today,” he said. “It will not be popular with everyone in Tennessee, but he did the right thing and we praise him for that.”
To date, Haslam has granted five commutations, 15 pardons, and one exoneration. The Republican says he is continuing to review and consider additional clemency requests.
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VANCOUVER — Fear of losing a job that offered multiple perks and a promising future with a well-connected crime group led a man to falsely confess to murdering a 12-year-old girl in British Columbia in 1978, a defence lawyer said Monday in closing arguments.
Patrick Angly told B.C. Supreme Court that Garry Handlen also didn’t want to bring any “heat” on members of the close-knit organization that supported him through his common-law wife’s cancer treatment and accepted him as family.
Handlen’s alleged confession came after an undercover officer posing as the head of the fictitious group told him police had a DNA sample linking him to the crime but it could disappear if he provided enough details to pin the blame on a former employee who was dying.
Angly said the boss had already told Handlen he was certain of his involvement in Monica Jack’s death near Merritt. He said there were witnesses and the case would be going to court.
“They’re coming for you,” the undercover officer told Handlen in November 2014, about nine months into a so-called Mr. Big sting in Minden, Ont.
“He has to agree with the boss,” Angly said. “He has to say he did it.”
Handlen says in the hidden-camera confession already presented in court and outlined by Angly on Monday that he was in a drunken stupor and remembers picking up a girl, having sex and strangling her.
“I know she was native,” he says.
However, Angly said Handlen didn’t provide any new information, only what he’d already been told by the RCMP during a 40-minute interview about a month after Jack disappeared in May 1978.
“It would be wrong of you to draw inferences from the fact that Mr. Handlen was questioned in 1978,” he told jurors. “That would be wrong and unfair.”
Handlen has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Jack. Her remains were found 17 years after she disappeared on a mountain where Handlen says later in the confession he murdered her and burned her clothes.
Angly said Handlen had already seen the crime boss firing someone else in a scenario the RCMP had concocted earlier and did not want to lose a lifestyle that offered him friends, food, hotels and the chance of a middle-management job with the organization that had paid him nearly $12,000 for jobs like smuggling cigarettes, loan sharking and repossessing vehicles.
Angly said his client had told multiple lies, suggesting his confession was just one more, and not because he was boasting, as the Crown has suggested, but because “he is a liar.”
He said Handlen’s lies stretched from saying he had been a member of the British army’s Special Air Service to claims he smuggled goods across international lines as a scuba diver and studied for a pilot’s licence.
“Is there anybody better suited to putting together a bullshit story than Mr. Handlen? Probably not.”
While none of the stories he told the other group members were true, it was in his client’s best interest to confess to murder so his dreams with the organization would not be snatched away, Angly said.
He said his client answered a lot of leading questions by the undercover officer and offered up answers that were publicly available, including in a television documentary, such as having seen Jack at a turnoff on the side of a highway and driving up a dirt road.
“It’s the police, in the form of a Mr. Big, that created the narrative, that created the story,” he said of Handlen’s alleged confession.
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HOUSTON — Two men suspected in a drive-by shooting that killed a seven-year-old black Houston girl and that was initially investigated as a possible hate crime mistakenly thought they were attacking people whom they had fought with at a club hours earlier, a prosecutor said Monday.
One of the men, Eric Black Jr., appeared in court Monday on a capital murder charge in the Dec. 30 killing of Jazmine Barnes. Black, 20, didn’t speak during the brief hearing or answer reporters’ questions as he was being led into the courtroom. His lawyer, Alvin Nunnery, didn’t speak to the media after the hearing and didn’t immediately reply to a call seeking comment.
Black, who is African-American, was arrested Saturday during a traffic stop. Prosecutors allege that he told investigators he was driving the SUV from which an unidentified passenger fired at Jazmine, her three sisters and mother as they were on their way to a grocery store.
Authorities have declined to name the suspected shooter or say whether he has been arrested, but Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he is also black.
Based on the family’s account of what happened, authorities initially believed that a white man in a red pickup truck was behind the attack. But they later received a tip that sent the case in a new direction from Shaun King, a civil rights activist who writes about racial issues and has a large social media following. The tip implicated two black men in the shooting.
Prosecutor Samantha Knecht told a judge Monday that the unidentified passenger fired on the family’s car in a case of mistaken identity, thinking it belonged to people he and Black had fought with at a club hours before the shooting. She declined to comment about the second suspect.
Gonzalez said there was, in fact, a red pickup truck driven by a white man seen at a stoplight just before the shooting, but the driver didn’t appear to have been involved. The sheriff said it was dark, the shooting happened quickly, and the red truck was probably the last thing seen by Jazmine’s family. He said authorities believe Jazmine’s family has been truthful during the investigation.
Throughout the investigation, Gonzalez stressed that he and his investigators would not stop working on behalf of Jazmine, and activists and elected officials praised him and other investigators for their efforts.
Deric Muhammad, an organizer of a rally that took place on Saturday in Houston to demand “Justice for Jazmine,” commended Gonzalez for working with the community to collect evidence that led to Black’s arrest.
“We are still heartbroken at the thought of a seven-year-old innocent child losing her life in such a violent way,” Muhammad said in a statement. “We are no less heartbroken that those person(s) currently charged with this homicide are Black; not White.”
Gonzalez cautioned that authorities were still investigating, but said: “At this point, it does not appear it was related to race.”
Prosecutors said the 9 mm handgun they believe was used in the shooting was recovered from Black’s home.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat who represents parts of Houston in Congress, said the community came together to help solve the case.
“It’s wonderful to have a sheriff who’s willing to engage in a dialogue about violence, about hate, about guns and we have that along with the (police chief), the mayor of our city,” Lee said.
James Dixon, a prominent pastor in Houston, also thanked Gonzalez for working around the clock during the investigation.
“We are blessed in this city to have the kind of collegial relationships between pastors and law enforcement and elected officials where we all really work together, we cry together, we pray together, we serve together and sacrifice together,” Dixon said.
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