Friday, November 24, 2017
On Wednesday, I did a first post on the case of Cyntoia Brown.
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.
One of the big questions in the Brown case is whether, given, her circumstances, she should have been given a sentence as a 16 year-old that doesn't even allow for the possibility of parole until well after she becomes a senior citizen. In making that determination, however, neither the trial nor the appellate court considered some key pieces of evidence.
In 2014, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee considered Brown's claim that she received the ineffective assistance of counsel based upon a few alleged errors by trial counsel. Here is the court's description of one of Brown's arguments:
Next, the Petitioner contends that she received the ineffective assistance of counsel because trial counsel failed to investigate and interview her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, when counsel knew from the Petitioner’s records that she had lived with Mitchell off and on until she was two years old, that Mitchell kidnapped her when she was eighteen months old, that Mitchell had been in and out of prison, that Mitchell was only sixteen years old when the Petitioner was born, and that Mitchell had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. However, the Petitioner did not raise this issue in either of her petitions for post-conviction relief, and post-conviction counsel never questioned trial counsel about the issue. As a result, the post-conviction court did not address the issue in its order denying the petition. Therefore, the issue is waived. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-106(g) (providing that a ground for post-conviction relief is waived “if the petitioner personally or through an attorney failed to present it for determination in any proceeding before a court of competent jurisdiction in which the ground could have been presented”) (emphasis added).
Yes, that's right. Brown's birth mother gave her up for adoption and then later kidnapped her when she was eighteen months old. You can read more details at CYNITOIA BROWN Life begins at 16.
Now, of course, evidence relating to Georgina Mitchell wouldn't have gone to the issue of Brown's guilt or innocence for the murder of Allen. But it should have been crucial for the court in determining what sentence to impose. And yet, the trial court never considered this evidence because trial counsel didn't pursue or present it, and the appellate court never considered it because appellate counsel waived the issue.
In the end, though, evidence related to the behavior of Brown's birth mother, including kidnapping her own daughter, almost certainly wouldn't have made a difference to Brown's sentencing for reasons that I will discuss in my next post. And those reasons raise questions about the constitutionality of Brown's sentence.