by Brantley Hargrove
Cyntoia Brown could bea gifted litigator, professor Preston Shipp thought, as he discussed the moving parts of the criminal justice system with his 30 students. Inquisitive, engaged, able to parse a legal principle and trace its lineage, the 21-year-old Brown was unlike anyone he’d ever taught.
It wasn’t just that she wrung every nugget of knowledge she could from her professor. It was her active, searching mind. Whenever Shipp played devil’s advocate supporting the prevailing model of mass incarceration, Cyntoia was the one student he could count on to pick holes in his argument. That set her apart from his students at Lipscomb University, undergrads whose attendance at chapel and Bible study is mandatory.
But there was another reason Cyntoia was different. Unlike his Lipscomb students, whose futures were limitless, Shipp knew she would never become a litigator. That’s because the class he was teaching met behind the heavy steel doors of the Tennessee Prison for Women, inside fences strung with razor wire.
By that spring of 2009, Cyntoia Brown had been locked up for nearly five years. Under the terms of her life sentence, she had about 45 to go before her term was up.
It was the second year of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education, a free program that places 15 traditional Lipscomb undergrads — mostly from white, upper-middle-class Christian families — in the same class with 15 felons, convicted of crimes such as murder and armed robbery. The program was intended to address gaps left after a 1994 federal law effectively defunded Pell Grants for inmate education, despite research from the Federal Bureau of Prisons showing that education lowers recidivism rates.
In 2004, Cyntoia was already a veteran of Middle Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. Back then, she was living out of a room at a South Nashville extended-stay dive. Her companion was a 24-year-old drug dealer and armed robber known as “Cut-throat,” who had her out on a Murfreesboro Road red-light district turning tricks for coke money.
That life reached its brutal apex on a summer night that August, when a 43-year-old real estate agent picked her up under circumstances that raise as many questions as they answer. That night, Cyntoia shot him in the back of the head and stole a couple of guns from his house. She was caught, and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. At an age most kids are worrying about drivers’ licenses and prom dresses, Cyntoia Brown was facing an adult criminal trial for premeditated murder.
But Preston Shipp didn’t know any of this. To him, Cyntoia was a wunderkind in prison blues. For all her outsize garrulousness, she was just 5 feet 2. She wore her thick, wavy black hair just past her shoulders, and her large, expressive eyes were often rimmed with black eyeliner. She was a magnetic presence, even in standard-issue jeans with “Tennessee Prison for Women” stenciled down the leg.
Shipp was no stranger to the criminal justice system. A former Tennessee assistant attorney general, he often worked the other side in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing on behalf of the state. If an appellant claimed his trial representation was ineffective, it was Shipp’s job to argue that the defense was more than adequate. If an appellant claimed his sentence was unreasonable, Shipp argued it was appropriate and just.
During his five years in office, Shipp wrote some 250 briefs. He didn’t lose much sleep over the people he helped keep behind bars. Most of them, he thought, were exactly where they needed to be.
But over the past few years, something had changed. He’d been spending time in the prison, teaching young women like Cyntoia who seemed eager to redeem themselves and their squandered lives. In class, he led his students in scathing critiques of the criminal justice system — the mass incarceration, the neglect of victims’ needs, the damaged people who often ended up convicted, the lip service paid to rehabilitation.
Shipp began to question his long-held beliefs, and to wonder about people who’d once been nothing more to him than names on a docket. Then one day, in April 2009, about a month into class, the professor was sorting through his mail when something stopped him cold.
Among the letters was an opinion from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. It settled a case he’d argued the summer before. The judges upheld the trial court’s conviction — which meant the professor successfully defeated the appeal on behalf of the Tennessee attorney general. It was another win for Preston Shipp.
Any sense of victory he felt, however, was gone when he read the appellant’s name. It was an improbable coincidence, and yet there it was: the name of his star student, Cyntoia Denise Brown.
Shipp sat frozen in disbelief. Could the polite, intelligent, unfailingly thoughtful girl who showed such promise in his class be the same cold-blooded murderess whose appeal he helped crush without a second thought?
In time, he would learn a lot about Cyntoia. He would find out about the depraved state the girl was in at the time of the murder. He would discover the things that had been done to her, and why she might reasonably think a stark naked 43-year-old man would go for a gun when she refused his advances.
Before knowing any of this, though, Shipp had successfully argued against her. At root, he had stated unequivocally that she deserved to remain in prison — for most, if not all, of her life.
The problem, Shipp says today, is that the system leaves no room for rehabilitation — and no chance for the juvenile court to reappraise troubled teens who become sensible adults. Like Cyntoia, juveniles convicted of serious crimes are being tried as adults with increasing frequency. Faced with a resource-strapped Department of Children’s Services and a jurisdiction not to exceed a youth’s 19th birthday, juvenile judges are left with little choice but to ensure public safety by locking them away — even if that finishes off a life already damaged by abuse, neglect and circumstance.
Upon receiving the letter, Shipp now had to face his most promising pupil. For when Cyntoia got word that her appeal was denied, she would learn that the instructor nurturing her hopes — of salvaging the life she threw away at age 16 — was the same person who had helped end them. It was as if a door finally slammed shut — a door that started closing before she was born.
Ellenette Brown, who is black, had no clue 16-year-old Georgina Mitchell, who is white, was pregnant. How could you tell? In 1987, all the kids were wearing baggy football jerseys. Georgina’s was certainly roomy enough to hide a swelling belly.
But there were a lot of things Ellenette probably didn’t know about the young woman who befriended her son, John Harleston. Georgina had come to Clarksville to live with her sister. Her mother warned her she could come back home to Georgia on one condition: without the black baby growing in her belly. Georgina never went home.
Instead, she began hanging around Ellenette’s house, a gathering spot for neighborhood teens. Ellenette, a trim woman with finely boned hands, was a substitute teacher at a nearby elementary school. Kids like Georgina were drawn to her. They could talk to her about things they could never broach with their own parents.
But Georgina didn’t tell Ellenette about the baby she carried, or the fifths of liquor she drained most nights. Nor did she mention the money she made charging for sex, or her family’s history of suicides and mental illness.
On Jan. 29, 1988, Ellenette received a call from John. Georgina, he said, was in the hospital. Was she injured? Ellenette wondered. Her worry shifted to disbelief when he told her the girl was a new mother. By the time Ellenette and John visited Georgina in her room, she’d named her baby daughter Cyntoia. There was no father present. He could have been one of several men, including John Harleston, Cyntoia says, but Georgina could never be certain. Mother and daughter vanished shortly thereafter.
When Georgina showed up six months later on Ellenette’s doorstep, with Cyntoia in her arms, it was to ask Ellenette to look after her baby for a while. Ellenette had no idea where they’d been, but she found Cyntoia such a sweet child that she didn’t mind. The days stretched into weeks, the weeks into months. Ellenette grew to love the baby girl, to treat her like a daughter.
Yet caring for her was a struggle. Ellenette’s husband Thomas Brown, an Army infantryman, was often deployed abroad. Ellenette couldn’t stay home with her because she worked. Nor could she take Cyntoia to day care, because she had no birth certificate or papers of guardianship. Instead, she left the baby girl with an elderly neighbor she could trust.
Eventually, Ellenette obtained guardianship papers. In the eyes of the state, Cyntoia was now her ward. All seemed well and unusually stable — until a year later. Without warning, Georgina resurfaced in Clarksville.
The wayward mother asked Ellenette to get Cyntoia dressed. She told the girl’s new legal guardian she was coming to pick up her daughter. When Ellenette told this to John Harleston, though, he gave his mother a different set of instructions.
Do not give her that girl, he said.
He had recently been corresponding with Georgina. In her yearlong absence, he’d learned, she had been hooking out of a motel on Trinity Lane. She was in and out of jail, strung out. So before Ellenette left for work that day, she instructed her husband not to let the child out of his sight.
That afternoon, Thomas called. He was frantic. Georgina had come by, saying she wanted to take Cyntoia shopping. She told him she’d bring her right back. He relented. Now they’d been gone for hours, Thomas said, and he’d been calling the phone number she left. No one answered.
Ellenette went to the Clarksville police and explained the situation. Georgina would surface at some point — most likely in jail — but what about Cyntoia? At this point, Cyntoia was 18 months old. Her guardian had no idea where to start looking, or even whom to ask.
Months passed. Ellenette lived in a state of perpetual worry, shedding weight she could ill afford to lose. Finally, one of Ellenette’s neighbors stepped forward. It was Georgina’s sister. She had been covering for her sibling, but she knew the strung-out mom couldn’t care for the little girl. She told Ellenette that Cyntoia was in Georgia.
The trail led to the Elizabeth Canty Homes, a crime-stricken public housing development in Columbus, Ga. When Ellenette reached a man at the housing project’s office, he knew exactly whom she was after. Georgina had been picked up a number of times for drugs and prostitution. She left Cyntoia with an elderly couple, and split. With an end to the ordeal in sight, Ellenette dispatched her son-in-law to Columbus with the girl’s guardianship papers.
He arrived, but the news wasn’t good. The couple would only relinquish Cyntoia if Ellenette picked the child up in person. Her desperate guardian didn’t hesitate. She drove seven hours through the night. But when she met her son-in-law, and they arrived at the couple’s home, Cyntoia was gone.
It had been six months since Georgina had taken her. Now the girl was 2, and Ellenette could only imagine what she had been through, the places her mother had taken her, the people she’d been left with. Ellenette went to the Columbus police, who informed her that Georgina was in jail. Meanwhile, the project’s sympathetic HUD manager said he’d called around and had just located Cyntoia. She was fine and staying with another couple who had sheltered Georgina. Give them 30 minutes to dress Cyntoia, he said, and go get your child.
The police offered to escort Ellenette and her son-in-law into the projects. They told her white son-in-law to wait in the car. She knocked on the door. As she began explaining to the woman who she was, Ellenette’s voice must have carried into the apartment. Tiny footsteps padded toward the door.
As quickly as her wobbling legs could carry her, the missing toddler locked her arms in a vise grip around her guardian’s neck. Between wracking sobs, in a 2-year-old’s halting speech, the girl asked why she’d left her. When she could finally speak herself, Ellenette explained she’d done no such thing. She had come to take her baby home.
Despite Ellenette’s efforts, though, Cyntoia was different after that. Everyone saw it. Back home in Nashville, she clung to her adoptive mother as if she were afraid that if she lost sight of her, she might disappear again.
Only the two of them remained. Shortly after Cyntoia vanished, Thomas was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a 13-month tour of duty. As for Ellenette’s two other children, they were grown and had moved away. Yet whenever her adoptive mother had friends and family over, Cyntoia had to be told to play with other children her age. Otherwise, she’d remain at her mother’s side.
Occasionally Ellenette received a letter from Georgina, usually from jail. She’d call when she got out, vowing that she would visit Cyntoia. But Ellenette wouldn’t hear from her after that — at least until the next time she wound up in jail.
Ever since Cyntoia was old enough to understand, she knew she was adopted. She didn’t look like Ellenette or Thomas or John Harleston or Missy, her sister. Her skin was lighter. Ellenette explained that her biological mother had been too young to care for her, and that Cyntoia was a part of this family now — legally and in every other sense of the word. But the girl couldn’t help feeling like an outsider. On trips to see relatives in North Carolina, she felt sure they shared no blood.
Her new father Thomas hardly made her feel more welcome. A Vietnam combat veteran, he’d been awarded the Purple Heart for a leg injury and had a plate implanted in his skull. He drank so much rotgut brandy that his friends called him “EJ,” after the E&J brand.
When he drank, Ellenette remembers, his temper smoldered until something set it off. Often, it was his adopted daughter. He told Cyntoia she was going to turn out just like Georgina — a prostitute, an addict. Tensions came to a boil one particularly difficult evening, when Ellenette threatened to pour Thomas’ E&J down the bathroom sink.
Ellenette didn’t mind a little wine during the weekend, but she thought it was time for Thomas to dry out. He was livid. In response, he hurled a lamp at her and gripped her throat, choking her.
John Harleston found out the next day and rushed over. As soon as he saw Thomas, he attacked. The son began to strangle his stepfather, wrestling him to the floor. Ellenette was away at church. Cyntoia, then roughly 9, was left to confront the enraged adults.
Petrified, screaming, she watched her father and brother struggle for life. In one shaking hand, she held the phone. In the other, she clutched a knife. She didn’t want to hurt John, but she wanted him to stop hurting her father. The phone, the knife; the phone, the knife.
The child managed to dial 911. But Cyntoia’s relationship with her father never recovered, Ellenette says. Around that time, Cyntoia began drinking whenever she could — mouthfuls of wine, beer or liquor from unattended cups at Super Bowl parties when no one was looking; booze raided from the liquor cabinet and stored in plastic bottles in the closet.
Cyntoia never asked many questions about her birth mother, Ellenette says, although she knew her daughter sometimes daydreamed about her. But a chance discovery changed the girl’s perception of her biological mother as an illusory, abstract presence.
At 10 years old, she was snooping through an item of Ellenette’s — a portable German closet called a schrank — when she came upon a sheaf of letters. They were written to her, dated back to her infancy and signed by her biological mother. Cyntoia had always wondered about Georgina. It had hurt her that she’d never reached out. She had felt disposable.
Now she knew it wasn’t true. All these years Georgina had been trying to communicate, but Ellenette wouldn’t budge. In her mind, she was protecting Cyntoia from her absentee mother’s chain of broken promises.
“All the years [Georgina] said, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming,’ and never shows up,” Ellenette says. “Suppose each time she said that I said to ‘Toia, ‘Your mom is coming,’ and she sits there waiting and she never shows up. That’s horrible. I’d never do that to a child.”
When Cyntoia turned 18, she could meet Georgina, Ellenette decided. In the meantime, she didn’t want the impressionable girl following her mother down that self-destructive path. She didn’t foresee, though, that her daughter was about to embark on her own. To Cyntoia, Ellenette’s obstinacy was keeping her from her real family, the blood kin she’d never had. She withdrew into her room most days after school — less and less Mommy’s girl.
Cyntoia was an exceptionally bright student, but disdainful of authority. She started smart-mouthing and cussing teachers, and she got into fights with other students. The kids at school teased her for her pale skin, her white mother. They mocked her status in a program for gifted children, as if being smart were a source of shame rather than pride.
In seventh grade, through the gifted program, Cyntoia took the ACT college entrance exam alongside high school seniors — and more than held her own. But in 2000, at the age of 12, she was picked up for a theft amounting to some $2,000 — Ellenette says it was a friend’s mother’s jewelry — and placed in the district’s alternative school for at-risk students.
During a psychological evaluation, the examiner was troubled when the girl began speaking in a high-pitched sing-song voice, threatening to kill her father and cursing staff members. She was “completely out of touch with reality,” an observer noted. Medication, likely Thorazine, was administered immediately.
Cyntoia told staff members of abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Then she leveled a devastating accusation, that he’d raped her. Cyntoia later recanted the statement, saying she was angry with him at the time. To this day, she maintains the rape never happened. But Ellenette, who filed for divorce not long after Cyntoia’s accusation, has never been able to completely dismiss the possibility.
The following April, Cyntoia violated her probation when she assaulted a teacher. That December, she was charged with escape after pulling the fire alarm at a secure juvenile detention facility and attempting to break out.
Cyntoia was exposed to a rough youth culture at the alternative schools where the district placed her. She started smoking pot regularly and skipping school. She was in and out of secure facilities: a Department of Children’s Services supervisor, at whom Cyntoia once hurled a chair, would later say her record took up several pages. She ended up in a long-term juvenile facility operated by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville was the end of the line. Less like a school and more like a prison, the facility was circled by a fence adorned with a looping tuft of razor wire. Here, away from Ellenette, plagued by internal conflict, Cyntoia spiraled out of control.
She was involved in roughly 20 assaults on other students. At 14, she was placed on a heavy-duty cocktail of psychotropic drugs for depression and anxiety, and she was entered into alcohol and drug treatment. In psychological evaluations at the time, doctors noted that Cyntoia often behaved irrationally, suffering from wild mood swings. She had little sense of self-worth, a counselor noted, and she expected others to fail or betray her. Yet she acted in ways that made those expectations reality. She was nearly incapable of trusting anyone, yet she badly desired approval.
Cyntoia spent 15 months in Woodland Hills. In April 2003, she was released. She was 15.
On the ride back to Clarksville, Cyntoia wondered where her father was. Every time she’d called home, she asked for Thomas. Each time there had been a different reason he couldn’t come to the phone — he was on the road, he was out in the yard, he went to the store. With her daughter released, Ellenette told her the truth: She and Thomas had divorced more than a year-and-a-half ago, and he was now living in Virginia. She hadn’t said anything about it while Cyntoia was locked up, afraid her daughter would have a meltdown and further delay her own release.
Cyntoia was stunned. Her father, for all his faults, was gone. There was a new man in Ellenette’s life, an old friend named Frank, but Cyntoia couldn’t stand him. She did everything she could to run him off, Ellenette says. Once, in an effort to scuttle the relationship, she told him Ellenette had another boyfriend.
Cyntoia began spending a lot of time with a girlfriend down the street. Ellenette found out they were actually hanging out at another house in the neighborhood, getting stoned and drunk. Mother and daughter clashed repeatedly. When Ellenette discovered she’d been skipping school, they parted ways.
The teenager stayed with her sister Missy and baby-sat her nephew when they both got out of school. The arrangement worked for a time, until Missy came home from work one day and found her son sitting in the house alone. Cyntoia was gone. She was missing for three days and returned with little explanation.
It was impossible for Cyntoia’s family to keep tabs on her 24 hours a day, particularly when everyone had to work. In December, Cyntoia was playing hooky at her sister’s house in Clarksville. She was supposed to help her decorate the tree that evening, but she was tired of waiting. In fact, she’d already made up her mind to go. She trimmed the tree herself and hung the lights and decorations.
The house, by all accounts, looked beautiful. Cyntoia Brown’s years of freedom were coming to an end, but all she could see was escape. She grabbed a bag and caught a ride to Nashville, to start her new life.
By the time Cyntoia was 16, she lived with an older woman in Nashville named Shocosha, whose home functioned as a de facto day care for children whose parents weren’t providing for them. She stayed stoned on blunts — cigars gutted and stuffed with marijuana. She popped Ecstasy and snuck into nightclubs, drinking and dancing into the morning. She drifted in and out of relationships with much older men who took advantage of her youth and inexperience — men who had no qualms about hooking up with a girl barely old enough to drive.
Cyntoia says she started selling crack out of a friend’s house in the Andrew Jackson housing development for a dealer who was locked up and needed the assist. When he got out, he asked her to join him on a cocaine run to Florida, offering to pay her. He picked Cyntoia up and they stopped at a motel off West End where he had a room. He claimed their bus to Atlanta had been delayed, and offered her a mixed vodka drink while they waited. She can only assume it was drugged.
She didn’t know for sure how many times he raped her, or how long she was in his motel room. When she finally stumbled out and managed to call Shocosha, she received a shock. “Where have you been?” the woman asked. Cyntoia had been gone for two days.
It wouldn’t be the last time. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Cyntoia says she was raped twice more. When she confided this to Shocosha, her friend would later say Cyntoia laughed. That’s how she coped. She laughed when you expected her to cry.
Cut-throat was always calling Cyntoia a slut. She shouldn’t feel that bad about it, he’d say. Some people are just born that way. It was as though he’d taken a page from her father’s playbook.
Cut, as she called him, wasn’t a bad-looking guy — broad-shouldered, with hair worn in a thick shock of small braids. His real name was Garion McGlothen, he was 24, and at first their brief relationship had been fun. They got high all day. They had sex, much of it unforced. He even got Cyntoia to snort her first line — one of the most pleasurable highs she’d ever experienced.
And when Cyntoia was up, she was invincible. Once Cut choked her to the point that she lost consciousness. As soon as she came to, Cyntoia got right back up and started taunting him. She lost weight, though, because she often forgot to eat. Her eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles.
Sometime in July, Ellenette got an unexpected call. She hadn’t heard from her daughter since May. She picked up the phone, only to hear Cyntoia calling from a bathroom in a Chattanooga motel. Ellenette begged her to come home, but Cyntoia said Cut wouldn’t let her. He knew where her adoptive mother lived, she said, and he’d told her that if she left him, he’d find her. He’d done it before. Cyntoia promised that as soon as she could get away, she would.
If on some level Cyntoia feared Cut, she didn’t know the half of it. For the most part, his rap sheet wasn’t that extensive. He’d been popped for carrying a gun and possession of narcotics. Cyntoia knew he sometimes robbed people. It’s a sure bet he sold a little coke.
What she didn’t know was that Cut was wanted in connection with a robbery several months before. A club owner named Rachel Browning had been shot in the neck and was paralyzed from the chest down. Already a dangerous sociopath, Cut was on a hair-trigger — an alleged accomplice in an attempted murder, maybe even the perpetrator.
Cut lay low. He and Cyntoia lived out of the InTown Suites on Murfreesboro Pike under a fake name, in a tiny room with a double bed and a hot plate. To pay for coke and room rent, Cut stationed Cyntoia out on Murfreesboro Pike near the hotel — a well-known thoroughfare where sex is a curbside service. Sometimes she could just take a john’s money and bolt. Sometimes she performed the service for the fee — about $250 usually, to be split with Cut. She didn’t like thinking of herself as a prostitute, but that’s what she was becoming.
It was around 11 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, 2004, when a carhop at Sonic saw a white-and-gray two-tone Ford truck drive past. She waved it down. The man behind the wheel, 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen, leaned out of the window and smiled. He was an average-looking guy, around 6 feet tall, with a slight paunch. He had shaggy brown hair and some male-pattern baldness he covered with a toupee. Even in front of longtime girlfriends, Allen was reluctant to remove his hairpiece.
The carhop could see the man was getting the wrong idea. “Your headlights are off,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and drove off.
Fifteen minutes later, Allen pulled into Sonic. Beside him, in the passenger seat, was Cyntoia.
“Back already?” the carhop joked.
Allen ordered a soft drink, a chicken sandwich and fries for Cyntoia.
“That’ll be $99,” she said, playing with him a little.
“That’s kinda expensive,” he replied.
“Don’t you think she’s worth it?” the carhop asked. She assumed Cyntoia was his daughter or niece.
“I don’t know,” Allen said. “We’ll see.”
The carhop would later testify that Cyntoia looked uncomfortable.
Allen pulled away from Sonic and took her to his home, on nearby Mossdale Drive off Bell Road. According to court documents, Allen, who’d been divorced since 1999, lived in a cozy split-level that was oddly appointed for a single man his age. In the living room, Cyntoia would have seen a pastel, floral-print couch flanked by lamps with tasseled, white satin shades, sitting atop doilies on white wicker end tables. A nearby armoire held trinkets, including a porcelain figurine in a white lace gown. On a wooden dinner table, cloth napkins folded in fan shapes were arranged around a vase of white silk flowers. It looked like the home of an aging spinster expecting guests for tea.
According to Cyntoia’s statement to police, and her testimony during the juvenile transfer hearing, she and Allen ate their dinner and chatted. Allen, Cyntoia says, claimed to be an expert marksman, trained in the Army. He showed her a chrome pistol, a double-barrel shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle, she testified. At some point they went downstairs and watched TV. BET was on, and she recalled seeing India.Arie. Allen had a lot of expensive audio equipment, including two tower speakers.
She claimed he tried to kiss her a few times, but she pulled away. Cyntoia maintains that she told Allen she was tired, and that she’d like to get some sleep. They filed into the master bedroom, where Allen unbuttoned a red-and-black Hawaiian-print shirt and slipped off a pair of dark slacks. They climbed into his bed, and she says she tried to drift off, hoping he wouldn’t insist on sex.
She wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway, because Allen, she claimed, kept getting out of bed and walking into the guest bedroom. From there, he’d walk to the bathroom and shut the door. Then he’d come back in and lie down. And he did it again, Cyntoia said, to her growing alarm.
During one of these trips back to his side of the bed, he shed his shimmering black and gold silk boxers and lay down naked next to Cyntoia. Allen caressed her shoulder. She later testified during a hearing that he tried to grab her crotch, and she pulled away. To hear her tell it, she began to fear he might kill her — a fear no doubt amplified by at least two weeks on a coke bender.
When Cyntoia rebuffed Allen’s advances, she says he rolled over. She thought he was going for a gun, so she reached into her purse on the nightstand. She pulled out a .40-caliber pistol Cut had given her for protection — the very same pistol, in fact, whose bullet had paralyzed Rachel Browning.
She leveled the gun at the back of Allen’s head and fired. As she grabbed her purse and turned to flee, she remembered hearing a sound like bathwater running onto the wood floor. She collected the rifle and shotgun from the case, she said, not about to return to Cut empty-handed. She loaded them into Allen’s truck and sped off at about 2 a.m. down the quiet street while the neighborhood slept.
Cyntoia pulled the truck into the InTown Suites parking lot and lugged the guns up to the room. Cut was furious that she’d brought the weapons to their room without concealing them. She returned to the truck and drove it down Murfressboro Pike to the Walmart on Hamilton Church Road. Surveillance cameras observed her dumping it in the parking lot and waving down a man in a black SUV for a ride.
As he drove her the short distance back to the motel, Cyntoia stared blankly ahead. The stranger would later recall wondering what the girl, who looked like a child, was doing out so late.
Cyntoia spent much of the next day getting stoned, glued to the television and waiting for a report on the night before. She testified at one point that she wasn’t sure whether Allen was dead or alive. At around 4 or 5 that afternoon, she went down the hall to Richard Reed’s room. She’d known Reed from juvenile detention back in Clarksville, where he’d been locked up for public intoxication, possession of a firearm and assaulting his grandmother.
He answered the door in a fog, still hung-over from the night before, which he’d spent drinking at the bar where he worked. She asked him for a ride down the street to Walmart. He dressed, and they hopped into a Ford Escort. According to trial transcripts, Reed claimed Cyntoia told him about a “fat lick.” He said she told him she shot a man, and that she would split the $50,000 she’d stolen if he accompanied her back to the house on Mossdale.
Reed thought she was blowing smoke — and she was, at least concerning the money. As they pulled into the Walmart parking lot, she pointed to a white pickup. She evidently had the keys to it as well, because she climbed inside while Reed waited.
Cyntoia claims she called Allen’s house from his cell phone, but no one picked up. When she got back to the InTown, she checked the news again. Not a word about a murder or a shooting. Within the next hour or so, she dialed 911 from his phone.
“2728 Mossdale Drive,” Cyntoia said in comical sotto voce, sounding like a little girl imitating her father.
“What’s going on over there, ma’am?” the operator asked.
“Homicide,” Cyntoia replied, and hung up. She would later say she didn’t like the idea of Allen lying in that bedroom by himself. She wanted him to be found.
At around 7:30 p.m. on the night after the murder, a Metro police officer entered Johnny Allen’s house through the garage. He found Allen prone, his left arm propping him up slightly on his right side at the very edge of the bed, facing the wall. His body was partially covered with a floral print bedspread. His fingers were loosely intertwined, with the back of his right hand resting lightly against his forehead.
There was an entry wound in the back of his head and an exit wound in the front. The force of the gunshot had apparently dislodged Allen’s hairpiece. The green pillowcase he was resting on had a powder burn about a foot from the back of his head. A great deal of blood had stained the side of the mattress and box springs, eventually pooling on the floor. In crime scene photos, it looks just a shade lighter than used motor oil.
Hours later, Reed and his roommate, Sam Humphrey, were watching the 10 o’clock news when a report aired about a homicide at a home near Bell Road. Reed was stunned, and he told Humphrey about the offer Cyntoia allegedly made that afternoon. Humphrey and Reed agreed it’d be safer to leave the InTown Suites for the night.
At around 1:20 a.m. the following morning, Detectives Charles Robinson and Derry Baltimore of the Metro Police Murder Squad pulled into the parking lot of the Compton Foodland off of Smith Springs Road to meet a young man who had information regarding the murder of Johnny Allen. Sam Humphrey told the detectives everything he knew, including where to find Cyntoia. Perhaps an hour later, the detectives arrived at the door of their room at InTown, flanked by six uniformed officers, guns drawn. The detectives hung back while the officers knocked on the door.
After a few moments, Cut answered and was pulled out and pinned down. Cyntoia rushed through the door in nothing but panties and a bra. “Cut didn’t have nothin’ to do with it,” she cried. “I’ll tell y’all everything.”
Baltimore and Robinson sat Cyntoia down in a tiny interrogation room at around 3:30 a.m. Robinson was a large man wearing a dark shirt under a fleece vest. He had a close-cropped fade and thick arms. Baltimore looked even bigger in a baggy black T-shirt. Across from them, a slight Cyntoia looked painfully young, wearing a tight blouse that exposed her shoulders and a short skirt.
She was cold, and she pulled at the thin blouse, trying to cover bare skin. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She cradled her head on her crossed arms, looking tired. But when she began to speak, she sounded intoxicated. Slurred words poured from her mouth in an almost unpunctuated monotone. She was either drunk or going through cocaine withdrawal. Occasionally she placed her head directly on the table, as though she might fall asleep then and there.
She told them her name was Cyntoia Mitchell — her birth mother’s maiden name — and gave a false birth date that made her 18 years old. The detectives read Cyntoia her Miranda rights, but when they got to the section where a suspect must affirm that no promises have been made by the police in return for a statement, confusion was evident on her face. “You’re not sitting here and you’re not promising me anything as far as helping me if I talk?” she asked. “But you just promised me that.”
Robinson stammered, claiming he only assured her outside the view of the video camera that he’d tell the district attorney she was cooperative — not an uncommon promise. But Cyntoia appeared to be under the impression she’d get more than just a good word to the DA. Or at least she seemed to have a very literal understanding of what it all meant.
She read her Miranda rights back to the detectives, skipping the section about “promises.” Moments later, she knocked her soft drink over, soaking the waiver and the table. She signed a new one and launched into her account of the night in question. Robinson and Baltimore weren’t buying it. To the veteran detectives, Allen’s recumbent attitude in the bed didn’t suggest self-defense.
At some point early that morning, Cyntoia placed a call to Shocosha from a phone in the homicide unit. Several detectives — including celebrated unit chief Pat Postiglione, one of the men who brought down Perry March and Marcia Trimble’s killer Jerome Barrett — heard the conversation. “I killed a man, and they’re charging me with murder!” she said. “I’m serious. I did.”
What struck the detectives wasn’t frightened sobbing. The girl was laughing.
As she was booked, a deputy couldn’t help but notice that Cyntoia looked listless, disconnected. Her speech was slurred. She seemed “nonchalant,” the deputy in booking later testified. Shortly after they ran her fingerprints, detectives discovered her real name and age.
Less than a week later, Cyntoia was transported to Bolivar, Tenn., to the Western Mental Health Institute for an evaluation. She became a nightmare patient. In a single day, she flew into a tantrum and tore down a light fixture and air-conditioning vent, requiring what’s known as a four-point — every limb secured — and a dose of Thorazine. Then she attacked a nurse when she was refused a call to Ellenette.
“I shot that man in the back of the head,” she allegedly screamed, “and bitch, I’m gonna shoot you three times in the back of the head and would love to see your blood splatter on the wall.”
It was the sort of stream-of-consciousness rant with which any prosecutor could make hay.
Counselors at the institute suspected Cyntoia had borderline personality disorder, a severe psychological condition common among hospitalized psychiatric patients, most often women — though they cautioned that such a diagnosis couldn’t be made until age 18 . It’s characterized by wild mood swings, extreme impulsivity and paranoia. Someone with Cyntoia’s condition might swing between idealizing someone and devaluing the relationship they shared — there was no middle ground — creating incredibly unstable personal connections. The risk factors read like the bullet points of Cyntoia’s life: abandonment in childhood, poor communication in the family, a disrupted family life and sexual abuse.
As expected, they also found that she was very bright, with an IQ of 127 — placing her well within the 90th percentile. On paper, Cyntoia sounded hyper-capable, but she was a teenage case study on the difference between intelligence and mental stability.
Despite everything he’d done to her, Cut still loomed large in Cyntoia’s mind. Her attorney, Kathy Evans, performed a common exercise with the girl: listing the pros and cons of her relationship with Cut. When she finished the list, Cyntoia found it lopsided. It was the first time she realized her relationship with Cut had only hurt her — that he’d never really loved her. Roughly seven months later, she found out he’d been shot to death in what appeared to be a drug-related dispute.
Even if she had begun to see her relationship with Cut through clear eyes, she had no such clarity about her current circumstances. At one point during her stay in Bolivar, she left a letter sitting out that she’d written to Ellenette. A nurse picked it up, only to find detailed instructions directing her adoptive mother to spring her from the relatively low-security institution. Written in the bubbly, looping hand you might expect to find in a girl’s diary, it indicated a child who could not grasp the trouble she was in: “Hey Mama! How are you? I’m fine as I can get, locked up facing life. You know they’re trying to give me the max. sentence? Suck ass!”
About a month later, Cyntoia was due before Judge Betty Green in juvenile court for a transfer hearing. It was one of the most important court proceedings she’d ever attend.
In Tennessee, when a minor commits a crime and is charged as a juvenile, she remains in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services until her 19th birthday, after which the court loses its jurisdiction. But if she is tried as an adult, she faces the same procedures and penalties as any other criminal. Juveniles charged with murder are almost always transferred, facing trial as adults.
The stark choice for judges — between the out-by-19 sentence that’s perceived as light for a murderer and the black-and-white justice of life in prison for a crime committed as an impressionable teen — reveals a fundamental inadequacy of the current system, one in effect promoted by a state legislature pleased with the status quo. Under the current system, nobody — not DCS, the district attorney or the juvenile judge — has any control over juveniles past their 19th birthdays. That leaves judges like Green with little choice but to transfer them.
“OK, I’ve got nothing I can do with this girl or this guy. She’s committed a terrible crime,” attorney Jim Todd, a former special prosecutor for violent juvenile offenders with the district attorney’s office, says of defendants like Cyntoia. She “needs an extreme amount of work. DCS isn’t gonna do it. So my only other option is to transfer her to [adult criminal court], and if she’s found guilty there, [the Tennessee Department of Correction] will take her for the rest of her life. There is no in-between.”
A compromise was proffered in 1999, when former Gov. Don Sundquist convened a commission — of which Todd was a member — that recommended a system known as blended sentencing. Instead of transferring juveniles to criminal court to be tried as adults, they’d be remanded to a secure facility and the juvenile judge would maintain an extended jurisdiction until the inmate’s 24th birthday. Meanwhile, counseling and vocational training would be provided. If certain benchmarks were met, and the inmates truly applied themselves to personal development, they could be released while still young enough to reintegrate into society.
The concept recognized that you can’t keep a kid in juvenile lockup until her 19th birthday and release her back to the very environment that created her. It was proposed as a way to transform juveniles in danger of becoming adult felons into law-abiding citizens. Rather than writing them off and locking them up for decades based on crimes they committed as impulsive, even malleable youths, the program amounted to a second chance — a program Preston Shipp says is the solution.
The state legislature balked at its price tag, however, and none of the commission’s recommendations were implemented, Todd says. This was particularly shortsighted, since incarcerating the 20,000 Tennessee inmates in adult facilities in 2010 cost taxpayers roughly $1.26 million a day. And so kids like Cyntoia Brown find themselves on a scale, the safety of the public counterbalanced with a state agency’s ability to rehabilitate juveniles when it can’t keep them past their tumultuous teen years.
It’s a scenario that plays out in Judge Green’s courtroom with increasing frequency. In recent years, she’s found herself transferring more and more juveniles to adult criminal court — 48 in 2006 and 70 in 2009 — as a consequence of repeated budget cuts to an already anemic state agency doing more and more with less and less. Interesting question: What percentage of Tennessee’s current inmate population passed through the juvenile justice system as minors? Ask DCS, the state Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole. None of them will be able to tell you, because no one is tracking the only figure that might tell us if our efforts at course-correcting juveniles work at all.
Over the past few years, the terrain of the judicial landscape has undergone a series of seismic shifts regarding the punishment of juveniles. It began in 1988, when U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that no one under 16 could be executed. In 2005, the age was raised to 18. In May 2010, the justices ruled in a five-to-four split that life sentences for juveniles not convicted of murder were unconstitutional.
Currently, South Africa and Israel are the only other countries who sentence juveniles to life imprisonment. Even Somalia, not known as a bastion of civil rights, has fallen in line with the rest of the world. In his 2010 opinion, Supreme Court Judge Anthony Kennedy said “the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole is in itself a severe sanction, particularly for a young person.”
An entire field of research has cropped up around the issue. Scientists have been examining the brains of juveniles and confirming what should be obvious — the regions of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control are poorly developed in someone Cyntoia’s age. It makes little scientific sense to treat a 16-year-old girl the same way you would a 30-year-old woman. Opinions among legal scholars are split on the likelihood of life sentences for juveniles in general being ruled constitutional by the high court. But already, challenges are being heard in Missouri, Michigan and Iowa.
Still, the dilemma remains: How do you adequately punish someone who isn’t a grown-up for a grown-up crime with irrevocable grown-up consequences? And even if they’re capable of change, should such a person be allowed a chance at rehabilitation and redemption — let alone a shot at re-entering society? These were, and are, the questions facing Cyntoia Brown.
At the transfer hearing, Cyntoia sparred ably with prosecutor Jeff Burks. Burks worked to undermine her self-defense claim, suggesting that Allen couldn’t possibly have moved into a laced-finger position after she shot him — that maybe he was even asleep. Cyntoia insisted he had moved. Round and round they went, advancing scenarios that were equally unprovable. Yet she proved to be a remarkably capable witness: argumentative, occasionally profane, an obvious product of the street — but deft nonetheless.
Dr. William Bernet of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital took the stand as well. He’d been retained by Kathy Evans, Cyntoia’s attorney, within weeks of the shooting. After hours of interviews with the girl, he’d arrived at the same conclusion as the therapists at Bolivar: borderline personality disorder. But he went a step further, saying he didn’t believe she’d waived her Miranda rights “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily,” the three criteria that must be met for a waiver to be valid.
Cyntoia understood the words in a literal sense, he said, but she failed to comprehend what they meant in practice. Despite her intellect, she failed a test he administered that gauged her ability to understand her right against self-incrimination. For example, she was under the impression that she was supposed to talk to the police — that, in the end, it’d be better for her if she did. But that is rarely true in a case like hers.
Still, after a daylong hearing, Judge Green ultimately recommended that Cyntoia be tried as an adult. It was disappointing, but not unexpected, for Cyntoia and her attorney. The stakes were now much higher.
Meanwhile, Ellenette fretted on the phone with her daughter in a taped call entered into her court record. It wouldn’t be long before Cyntoia would turn 18, eligible for transfer to an adult facility.
“I’ll be worried about those grown women, you know, that’s gonna be there,” Ellenette said.
“Because they’re bigger than me?” Cyntoia asked.
“Don’t worry about me, Mommy, I probably will get beat up a lot. I’ll probably get stabbed and everything. Just about everybody that goes to the penitentiary gets stabbed or gets their room set on fire.”
“Um, hm, hm, hm, hm,” Ellenette clucked. She chided her daughter for the fights she’d been getting into. Through 2004 and 2005, Cyntoia was the kind of inmate who gave prison guards night sweats. She was written up repeatedly for hitting, kicking, punching, spitting and threatening the guards.
Cyntoia changed the subject. She talked excitedly about the all-you-can-eat buffet she’d heard was at the adult facility during chow, and that Ellenette and Missy could send her care packages stuffed with bags of Doritos.
“I would like for you to have some kind of an adult life,” Ellenette pressed. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“Now you understand why I’m so depressed and do the things I do, because I gotta think about that every day,” Cyntoia said
“Me facing life.”
“Right. Facing life is ignoring these people so you can have a life. At the rate you’re going, you won’t have a life,” Ellenette said, referring to the assaults on staff.
“I probably won’t have a life anyway, Ma. It don’t matter how I behave. You don’t understand what I did. I killed someone.”
“I know you did.”
“I executed him.”
That statement was yet another prime example of how Cyntoia’s mouth could end up costing her at trial. The young woman had a way of using language incongruously. But the weight of her predicament was finally beginning to settle on her shoulders. It’s unlikely that any of that would matter to a jury — just one word.
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.”