Last night I watched a film on BBC3 entitled: Me Facing Life – Cyntoia’s story.
Made by producer/director Daniel H Birman, it tells a harrowing tale of the life of a sixteen year old girl from Tennessee who came to be found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to a life time in prison.
Cyntoia Brown had never sought to deny that she had shot and killed her 43 year old male victim. She is shown in her first police interviews looking weary and confused, her curly black hair scraped back from her face in a ponytail. There is no solicitor or any kind of representative present. She looks closer to twelve than sixteen.
We are shown snippets of her in court, and also in interviews with forensic psychiatrist, Doctor William Bernet, recounting past events from her life and the circumstances leading up to her crime. Again her tone seems weary, occasionally angry, but often deadpan as she recounts horrific stories of physical and emotional abuse, and of rape and forced prostitution.
Cyntoia had been living in a hotel with an extremely violent and sexually abusive man named ‘Cut’ who would often force her out onto the streets in order to “get money.” She left the hotel on a summer evening in 2004 with the intention of hitching a ride to the local red-light district, when a 43 year old man pulled up alongside her in a truck and enquired as to “how much?” After a degree of haggling, a price of 150 dollars was agreed upon and, despite Cyntoia’s suggestion they go back to her hotel – which was after all just down the road – the man insisted on taking her instead to his home.
Cyntoia recalled being frightened by his talk of how he was an expert marksman who owned many guns and had spent time in the army. He had seemed angry at women too, telling her bitterly that they only ever wanted him for his money. She is shown in court attempting to describe the lead up to the shooting, her often expressionless face suddenly showing uncomfortable and scared as she tries to articulate quite why she had felt so threatened. “Because he discussed guns and being in the army?” the prosecution lawyer asks incredulously. “And the way he was acting” comes the reply.
According to Cyntoia she had eaten some food and watched some television at the mans house before telling him she was tired and needed to sleep. They went into the bedroom, he undressed, and once in bed grabbed her violently between the legs whilst looking at her, “with a real fierce look on his face.” He then turned over with his back to her, appearing to reach for something. Convinced he was reaching for a gun and that he meant to harm her, Cyntoia grabbed a firearm out of her bag – given to her by Cut for protection – and shot him in the back of the head. Terrified of returning to her pimp empty handed, she then grabbed two guns from the mans house and sped away as fast as she could in his truck.
Despite her tender years, Cyntoia Brown was tried as an adult and found guilty of first degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to a minimum of fifty one years in prison.
Her story broke my heart, not least because she is clearly an extremely bright and articulate young woman whose future may now be entirely laid to waste, but also because all through the film you are continually struck by a horrible sense of inevitability – a terrible feeling that all along, history was simply grinding inexorably on, intent on repeating itself.
Cyntoia’s biological mother, herself drug addicted and with a history of working as a prostitute, was unable to care for Cyntoia and gave her up informally to a local family when she was just a baby. Still only in her early thirties when her daughter is first arrested for murder, she is shown at her trial sitting anxiously in the courtroom, a tattoo spelling out the word suicide in delicate caligraphy across her right upper arm. As a girl she had witnessed a relative shoot themselves right in front of her. Many female relatives had committed or attempted suicide. Her own mother - Cyntoia’s grandmother – has her own story to tell, and speaks of a pregnancy as having resulted from a violent rape perpetrated by a local thug at the instigation of her own husband. A dreadful history of sexual abuse and mental illness runs back at least three generations through Cyntoia’s biological family, perhaps giving some genetic clue as to why she herself was diagnosed as suffering with a personality disorder while still a child.
As far as social background is concerned, Cyntoia’s adoptive mother seems to have been committed to her care, however her husband was known to be physically abusive, both towards her and Cyntoia. At the age of twelve Cyntoia disclosed to a member of staff at her school that he had also raped her. She later withdrew the allegation and continues to maintain to this day that it was never true, but her adoptive mother (who is now divorced) has since stated that she has never been fully able to discount the possibility.
Certainly Cyntoia was an extremely distressed and traumatised child. As she approached her teenage years she began to commit petty crimes, display violent tendencies and experiment with drugs. As she got older she would disappear from home for days on end, and in the months leading up to the shooting she was victim to multiple acts of sexual violence, at one point being drugged and raped over a period of two days in a motel room by a local drug dealer.
One can easily see how a young girl subjected to such atrocities might assume the man who had picked her up in his truck and taken her to his home might mean to harm her. But none of Cyntoia’s history was ever revealed in court. Dr William Bernet, the forensic psychiatrist to whom she had told her life story, was never asked to testify. The jury never got to hear any of the wider context in which her crime was committed. As far as they were concerned, the shooting had occurred in a vacuum. The prosecution then went on to portray the victim as a good samaritan whose only wish had been to help Cyntoia, despite the fact that he had been found naked in the bed and a witness had also come forward to give evidence that he had once raped her. In such circumstances a guilty verdict was always going to follow.
Cyntoia Brown’s case is to be reviewed in the Autumn, and I for one hope very much that she is finally given the shot she deserves at living a free and productive life. One notices throughout the film that shots of her in prison often show her writing, and at the very end we get to hear her read out some of her thoughts regarding her life sentence and what it might mean in terms of her future. Her obvious writing talent and philosophical display of magnanimity belie her years. I hope that a system which failed her utterly in the first place does not compound its failings by letting the whole of the rest of her life go to waste.