EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Cyntoia Brown & the "51-To-Life" Project

I've done a few posts (here, here, and here) about the Cyntoia Brown case.

Brown, now 29, was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking in Tennessee in 2004 when she fatally shot Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent who solicited sex from her, according to court documents and multiple local reports. Brown — who admitted she killed Allen by shooting him in the back of the head — becomes eligible for parole soon after she turns 69.

In doing those posts, what I've realized is that perhaps the most significant legal change in Tennessee that can help Brown and other juvenile lifers in Tennessee is a change in Tennessee's "51-To-Life" Law, which I outlined in this post. So, let me break that down, and then I will start the "51-To-Life" Project (similar to the Prior Inconsistent Statement Project).

1.    In Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court held that "[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide;"

2.    Subsequently, in Miller v. Alabama,  the United States Supreme Court held that that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments;"

3.    Therefore, juvenile non-homicide offenders can never be given a sentence of life without parole, and, at a minimum, juvenile homicide offenders can only be given life without parole sentences after individualized sentencing hearings (some states have held that juvenile homicide offenders can never be given life without parole sentences);

4.    So, if a juvenile homicide offender is given a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, the question becomes when the offender should be eligible for parole.


In Tennessee, if a juvenile is convicted of first-degree murder, there are two sentencing options: (1) life without the possibility of parole; or (2) life with the possibility of parole, with that possibility only existing after the juvenile has been incarcerated for 51 years. This is Tennessee's "51-To-Life" Law. Last year, there was a proposed bill that would have amended this law so that a juvenile homicide offender would be eligible for parole after being incarcerated for 20 years. That bill was later amended so that a juvenile homicide offender would be eligible for parole after being incarcerated for 30 years. The bill was eventually pulled, but it will be up for consideration again next year.

The Cyntonia Brown case brings these approaches into perspective. Convicted of first-degree murder at age 18, Brown was given a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Under Tennessee's current law, she is not eligible for parole until she serves 51 years in prison, i.e., when she is 69 years-old. Under the 20 year proposal, Brown would be eligible for parole after serving 20 years in prison, i.e., when she is 38 years-old. Under the 30 year proposal, Brown would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years in prison, i.e., when she is 48 years-old. Of course, none of this is to say that Brown or any juvenile lifer will/would be given parole after 20, 30, or 51 years in prison. These numbers are simply the minimum number of years that a juvenile life must serve before the Board of Parole can decide whether she can be released from incarceration.

The contention in the article I cited in this post is that Tennessee treats juvenile homicide offenders worse than any other state in the country. The question is whether this contention is true. If so, it provides strong support for the contention that Tennessee should pass some version of its proposed bill to reduce the age at which juveniles like Cyntoia Brown are eligible for parole. 

Over the course of the next 50 posts, I will consider the juvenile sentencing laws of the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. For purposes of this project, I will conclude that a state treats juvenile homicide offenders better than Tennessee if the state (1) does not sentence juvenile homicide offenders to life without parole; and/or (2) allows for the possibility of parole in cases of juvenile homicide offenders given sentences of life with the possibility of parole before the juvenile has spent 51 years in prison.

Once the project is completed, I will present my results to legislators in Tennessee.



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Colin, what are the standards for how the Court interprets "cruel and unusual punishment?" It seems to me that requiring 51 years incarceration before parole eligibility meets the definition of cruel and unusual punishment, given that convicts of majority often receive lesser sentences for the same types of crimes.

Posted by: Tim | Nov 29, 2017 8:00:21 AM

Colin -- I just want to say thank you for doing this important work. It would be interesting to know if there are any distinctions made for any states between offenders under 18 vs an even younger subset like under 16. The length of the sentences is especially concerning when we also take into account greater potential for false confessions, inability to effectively assist in their defense, etc. It would also be interesting to look at differences between states in how cases involving juveniles end up in adult court (e.g., California Prop 57 recently ending automatic direct file for juveniles).

Posted by: Jodi | Nov 29, 2017 11:58:13 PM

The most important thing about her case to me is that. WTF was that man doing with a 16 year old girl. They made her look like a hooker after his money. But his name wasn’t varnished at all. Because he is a fucking man and white. So much injustice here. I don’t care if she had fetal alcohol syndrome or not. That dude deserved to die. She saved other under age girls from home. So good for you Cyntoia but not sure even in this day and time, that you can win against a perverted man.

Posted by: Karen | Apr 30, 2020 7:19:37 PM

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