Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for murder aged just 16 – but questions about her past, physiology and the called her guilt into question.
The American was convicted of the murder of 42-year-old pastor Johnny Allen, who she shot in the back of the head with her .40-caliber handgun on August 6, 2004 after being picked up for sex.
But the case drew international attention – with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Rihanna joining a campaign against what many saw as her wrongful imprisonment.
They demanded leniency to be dealt to Cyntoia due to her age and the trauma she experienced having been the victim of sex trafficking after a life of hardship.
After 15 years behind bars, Cyntoia was finally released last year when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown and commuted her life sentence to the time she had already served.
However, before Cyntoia’s sentence was changed and she was released, Haslam received one letter detailing a chilling slip she made after killing the pastor.
The lead detective in the case, Charles Robinson, urged Haslam not to grant clemency to Cyntoia in a seven-page letter in 2017.
Robinson insisted that Cyntoia was “not justified” in killing Allen – a Sunday school teacher and youth minister who had taken her back to his home for sex.
She said that she feared for her life while alone with him in his bed and used a gun she carried in her purse to shoot him in the back of the head.
But Detective Robinson’s letter included testimony from witnesses, including a neighbour who heard a worrying confession.
Richard Reed told police that Cyntoia had asked him for a ride to Walmart, where she had left Allen’s truck the night before.
Mr. Reed then said he was asked by Cyntoia to drive back to Allen’s house so “she could get more items”, but was given a stern warning when he refused.
“Mr. Reed stated Cyntoia said I shot somebody in the head last night and blew his brains out,” wrote Robinson in his letter.
“Mr. Reed stated Cyntoia said it was a fat lick (robbery). Mr. Reed stated Cyntoia also said she took $50,000, some guns and his truck.”
After telling his roommate, Samuel Humphrey, about what he discovered, Samuel then reportedly went to Cyntoia’s room to ask her about the incident.
Mr. Reed then claimed that Cyntoia rang to warn him to stop talking about their conversation or there would be consequences in a serious threat.
In the letter, detective Robinson continues: “Mr. Reed stated Mr. Humphrey went to Cyntoia’s room and asked her about it.
“Mr. Reed stated Cyntoia called him and said you better stop running your mouth about my business or I’ll get you too.
“Mr. Reed stated he’d seen Cyntoia with a .40-caliber, High Point, Semi Auto handgun several days earlier.
“Mr. Reed stated Cyntoia was playing with the gun and put it to his head.”
Detective Robinson claimed this report of the events was backed up by Mr. Humphrey’s, who went to speak to Cyntoia after finding out what happened from Mr. Reed.
The detective wrote: “Mr. Humphrey stated Mr. Reed said Cyntoia told him she blew a man’s brains out and took his truck.
“Mr. Humphrey stated he later spoke with Cyntoia and she told him the same story.
Mr. Humphrey stated they didn’t believe her until the saw the 10:00 PM news.
“Mr. Humphrey stated they discussed calling the police but feared retaliation by Cyntoia and her boyfriend.
“Mr. Humphrey stated they decided to leave the hotel and call the police.”
While Robinson admitted that he did consider that Cyntoia was justified in killing Allen, he ultimately concluded that the murder in his opinion was “not justified”.
“At the beginning of this investigation, I considered the possibility that Cyntoia Brown was justified in killing Johnny Allen,” wrote Robinson.
“At the conclusion of this investigation my findings were that she was not justified in killing Mr. Allen and her only motivation for the murder was robbery.”
Despite the detectives claims in the seven-page document, governor Haslam came to the decision to free Cyntoia “after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case”.
He believed she was treated as an adult by the criminal justice system despite being 16 when she committed her crime and the sentence was too harsh.
Cyntoia’s defence team argued that due to her traumatic background of sex trafficking and living with foetal alcohol syndrome, in addition to being just 16-years-old, meant she should not have been judged as harshly as she was.
After being granted clemency, Cyntoia said: “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. Let today be a testament to His Saving Grace.
“Thank you to my family for being a backbone these past 14 years.”I am thankful to my lawyers and their staffs, and all the others who, for the last decade have freely given of their time and expertise to help me get to this day.
“I love all of you and will be forever grateful.”With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people.
“My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.
When Cyntoia was granted clemency, Allen’s family were unhappy with her getting her freedom.
They said in a statement: “We are at a loss for words. We feel like the judicial system has failed again for victims everywhere.
“This world is all about power and money and not what is important such as honesty and fairness for those that work hard and try to help others. We are very saddened about this event.
“Our hearts are broken because we feel like Johnny never got to defend himself. We never got to be a voice for him. Please keep us in your prayers.”
After being released in August 2019, Cyntoia has gone on to discuss her experiences across various forms of media.
In October last year, Cyntoia released a memoir about her 15 years in incarceration, entitled Free Cyntoia: My Search For Redemption In The American Prison System.
As part of the promotion for the book’s release, she appeared on a number of high-profile shows including CBS News and The Breakfast Club in the US.
Cyntoia has also become a prolific social media user, posting regular updates on her life with musician husband Jamie Long and beauty looks, alongside her media appearances.
Cyntoia revealed her feelings towards the new Netflix documentary film Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story .
Alongside a photo of the Netflix logo, she wrote: “While I was still incarcerated, a producer who has old footage of me made a deal with Netflix for an UNAUTHORIZED documentary, set to be released soon.
“My husband and I were as surprised as everyone else when we first heard the news because we did not participate in any way.
“However, I am currently in the process of sharing my story, in the right way, in full detail, and in a way that depicts and respects the woman I am today.
“While I pray that this film highlights things wrong in our justice system, I had nothing to do with this documentary.”
*Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is available to watch on Netflix