Facing life: Cyntoia’s story.

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.






About Gappy

Blogger and single mother of three. Likes cake. Hates Jeremy Clarkson. These are my principles - if you don't like them, I have others.
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32 Responses to Facing life: Cyntoia’s story.

  1. Steve says:

    What chance does a 16 year old have in that situation? What would any of us have done. A clear case of self preservation.

  2. Katriina says:

    My heart goes out to her.

  3. Frances Burrow says:

    I just watched that programme and it really shocked me, that basically a child can be so unfairly dealt with by the justice system. I sincerely hope she wins her appeal. There is a petition at GoPetition supporting her.

  4. You want to scream in such cases as this. Scream for the injustice of the whole system! Hoping for her.


    I don’t agree with the way the US treats it’s teenage offenders. At the same time though I do think the picture of the victim was quite damming in that from his position it looked as if he had been sleeping. Also we only have her words on what happened – the victim doesn’t have a voice any longer. I didn’t feel her defence lawyer had the grasped the gravity of her situation either and for me the adoptive mother seemed somewhat concerned with how it all affected how she looked.

    It’s just big sad mess really. I do feel she should serve a good many years inside though for what she has done and that the state should look at it’s role in making sure the same thing doesn’t happen over and over.

    • Fatou says:

      HOW DOES SHE DESERVE ” a good many years” you pompous arse !! she was sixteen years old. Scared and untrusting of the world put yurself in her shoes. Imagine being raped , being forced to prositute and feeling alone an so on … she doesnt deserve to neglected of happiness. If she gets a lower sentence then maybe she can make something of her life she is very intelligent. Its just another life wasted because the government gave up on them.

    • rene says:

      the man wanted sex with a child you sick f k

  6. Zara says:

    Omg how heartless can these ppl be.. This girl is facing life for self defence.. :( its a shame she’s so young born in 1988.. 23 years old should be out there in university..

    Can some please tell me wen we will hear abt the trail .

  7. Karen says:

    I have just watched the documentary about Cyntoia and am absolutely shocked that the Jury found her guilty.Wern’t they hearing the same things as me?What a tragic life this young girl has led and I admire her strength and dignity.I hope her appeal is succesful.

  8. warburtonalison says:

    This outdated Law needs to stop. Kids as young as 15 are being tried as if they were adults and recieving life sentences.
    There is one young man called Erik Jensen in Limon Prison who happens to be INNOCENT of his so called crimes. Please check out his story and others on you tube FRONTLINE KIDS SERVING LIFE.
    Please sign petition to get this innocent guy out of prison CHANGE.ORG

  9. JOHN H (SCOTLAND) says:

    cant believe ive just saw this what are they jury members thinking even tho shes guilty 51 years my heart bleeds for tht young girl.. its so sad that people can make someone whos been threw so much pain n heartache not to mention violence n sexually abused but now shes got 51 years in jail she was fostered as a baby btween 0-4 had been round 7 different potential parents. the system failed this poor girl and is now fuking her its a shame n everyone should see tihs and know about this. its ridiculous ive had simmiliar traumatic experiences minus the sexual abuse and cant believe people can put a girl tht age away for the rest of her life and give her no help or chance of release hope her appeal goes well and she gets the life she deserves. FREE CYNTOIA BROWN

  10. Carrie says:

    I just watched this, I actually felt sick with the jury how could the possibly find a 16 year old guilty!!! I’m not being funny but a guy trawling for young girls on the street had it coming. That truly truly disgusted me.

  11. Anonymos says:

    OMG … cyntoia shouldnt be in prison ….. shes only 16 she shouldnt face a life sentence

  12. Ruth Woolsey says:

    Well done to BBC3 for highlighting this poor girls situation. Lets hope it sees her set free. Good to hear others feel as mad as me that this could have happened in the first place.

  13. sharona says:

    It is an absolute tragic situation for everyone involved. I feel that a sentence is warranted, after all someone has died as a result of whatever took place that night. However life without parole is outrageous – how many things have we done when we were younger that we regret and would like the opportunity to turn around. If this punishment stands Cyntoia will never get this opportunity. Lets hope they give her the chance to turn her life around and another chance at freedom.

  14. Wendy says:

    I watched this programme in England last night and felt compelled to do some research on line about Cyntoia. She never had a chance from the start off and looking at her in her orange prison suit, she looks much younger than her 16 yrs and one does wonder what on earth a 43 year old man was doing picking someone up that looks perhaps 13. She seems to have much so much potential, it is an absolute waste! I will be keeping track of how she goes on in the Autumn. Im sure with help and rehabilitation she could and SHOULD be leading a normal life.

  15. Charlotte says:

    do be mindful though of the editing of the program and how the producers wanted to portray her. I’m sure there are manuscripts of the court hearing somewhere and I’ll admit I’ve not read them but from the little I saw of the program it was always only ever going to show things that made us feel exactlty the way everyone does seem to feel about the “poor girl”. Yes, she had a rough childhood, probably an understatement and I cant even imagine what that must do to a person but to take a life is a punishable crime, regarless of whether its self defence, manslaughter, death by dangerous driving, if your actions take the lide of another then you need to be bought to justice and pay your dues. She hsould not have been tried as an adult though at 16. In the US you’re not even allowed to drink at that age but you can be tried and sentenced as an adult. Doesnt make sense.

  16. Kazz says:

    I found Ms. Brown to be one of the most dangerous people I have ever dealt with in 15 years as a prosecutor. Her “magnetic personality” makes her a convenient model for those who want to revamp our system. And perhaps our system needs to be revamped — it’s not perfect and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers on this issue. But I sleep well at night knowing that Cyntoia Brown is in prison. I’ve seen enough people die on our streets for no reason.

    Jeff P. Burks
    Assistant District Attorney

    I sleep well at night know that the scum that she defended herself against is no longer alive to use and abuse her and be violent towards her or any other minor. Jeff Burks should be ashamed of himself. Heartless, hard hearted and unkind. Dreadful man. He represents all that is wrong with the American legal system.

  17. Hello says:

    I watched this earlier today and it definitely reached out to me. It’s disgusting how they handled such a delicate case, it’s awful how they didn’t even review her past life. It’s such ashame that a clearly well stable girl, who has so much ahead of her, is spending it in prison. Nice justice system, Tennessee.

  18. Tolita says:

    Excellent piece; balanced and sensitive. I too saw the documentary and like you was impressed by her intelligence and maturity but saddened not just by her experiences but how world-weary they’d made her at such a tender age. I also felt so much for her adoptive mum who had done her best for Cyntoia despite what the tragic outcome suggests.
    Reading your piece was an eye-opener. For some reason I was unaware of how much evidence was withheld from the jury.

    I agree that a crime was committed and there should be retribution but cases such as Cyntoia’s need to be taken into context and the sentencing adjusted accordingly. I hate that US penal system can literally throw people away like this. I went online to see what became of her parole hearing in the Autumn. I can’t find anything to suggest she was given a second chance so I assumed she’s languishing there. I tried writing to her but never received a reply. I suppose she’s inundated. In any case, she’ll be in my prayers.

    Tolita x

  19. shona_ford@live.com.au says:

    What a travesty this poor child has been delt by all the adults that surrounded her. Although this man was killed what was a 43 year old doing bargaining for sex with a child? She sure didn’t look 16. Why wasn’t his history looked into?
    The prosecutor claimed she must have felt safe because she used the guys toilet WTH? The prosecutor was just another older male telling her what she should feel and do. Another male who should have helped to protect this child within the law system but abused her as well. How do they sleep at night?
    I sincerely hope she gets a fair hearing and a sentence that is more fitting for her.

  20. mary martin says:

    not a word about the victim! you only have her story about what happened.she is street wise,she took a mans life,she had a choice,she did not have to go to his house,she was going to go to a area to prostitute,she is not innocent.

    • She'sSoRight says:

      I have a word or two for the victim and about the victim: He was a RAPIST and a PEDOPHILE. BURN IN HELL!

    • Petero Atkinson says:

      Totally agree with that.. Cyntoia is far from innocent and coming from an abusive childhood is no excuse for murder. I’d love to hear what the victims family has to say about this. By the way the jails are full of young murderers who came from abusive upbringings.. Shall the bleeding hearts campaign for their release also? Everyone sees a cute young girl playing a victim of society.. But I just see her playing most of the people on this site.

      • rene says:

        i saw a 43 year old that would have wanted have sex with a minor it could have been youre doughter to hes a sexual monster he got what he deserved

  21. T_Bone says:

    She should be giving a second chance, she should be allowed to have a future. I mean cmon! the guy was a bastard and wasn’t really helping her at all. The justice system for young offenders is fucked up and something needs to be done. Cyntoia has problems yeah, she doesn’t need people judging her all the time. She’s a clever interlectual girl and i am sure if she was free she would go on to do great things. Things she cannot do when she’s stuck in a hell hold. I reckon she should be giving another chance its 50/50 some people will agree that she should be out. Other will dissagree but its too long to serve that.

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