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Not A Cardboard Cut Out: Cyntoia Brown and the Framing of a Victim

Not A Cardboard Cut Out: Cyntoia Brown and the Framing of a Victim

The evening of August 6th, 2004, 16-year old Cyntoia Brown shot and killed Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old Nashville resident who picked her up for sex. It was an act of self defense, she explained to police later; after Allen took her to his house, he showed Cyntoia multiple guns, including shotguns and rifles. Later in bed, as she described in court, he grabbed her violently by the genitals, his demeanor became threatening and, fearing for her life, she took a gun out of her purse and shot him.

Though Cyntoia acted to protect herself from the violence of an adult client, Nashville prosecutors argued that she shot Allen as part of a robbery. Cyntoia was tried as an adult and was convicted of first degree premeditated murder, first degree felony murder and “especially aggravated robbery” two years after her initial arrest on August 25th, 2006. She is currently serving concurrent life sentences in Tennessee and will only be eligible for parole after serving 51 years in prison.

In late November, Cyntoia’s case roared into the headlines again when celebrities like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and Lebron James shared details of her conviction on social media. Rihanna posted on Instagram: “Did we somehow change the definition of #JUSTICE along the way?? Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life! To each of you responsible for this child’s sentence I hope to God you don’t have children, because this could be your daughter being punished for punishing already!” Kim Kardashian shared on Twitterthat she had reached out to her personal attorneys to ask about how to #FreeCyntoiaBrown.

It’s unclear why Cyntoia’s case has re-emerged to capture the public’s imagination 13 years after her arrest. Charles Bone, one of Cyntoia’s lawyers, told Buzzfeed that he didn’t know why celebrities were now discovering Cyntoia’s case, but that he welcomed the attention. “This issue, in general, is worthy of a lot of publicity,” Bone said, “especially in the culture in which we live today.”

As petitions calling for Cyntoia’s release and letters demanding clemency circulate online, it’s worth considering the issues raised by Cyntoia’s conviction and the renewed push to free her from prison.

Here’s what has been established about her case in the court record: Cyntoia, who at the time of the incident was living in a room at a Nashville InTown Suites, said she went home with Allen because her pimp and boyfriend Garion McGlothen, nick-named “Kut Throat,” insisted that she needed to earn money. Kut Throat abused her physically and sexually throughout the approximately three week period in which she lived with him.

Cyntoia herself was able to talk about the night of her attack, and Allen’s death in the 2011 PBS documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.” Cyntoia explained that she was looking to get a ride to East Nashville to engage in street-based sex work when she met Allen, who was scouring a Sonic Drive-In parking lot for sex workers. Allen propositioned her and attempted to haggle her down from $200, to $100; they finally agreed upon $150.

Cyntoia characterized her survival strategies as survival sex work or teenage prostitution for an adult pimp. While she says that she was coerced into sex work by Kut Throat, Cyntoia never described herself as a child sex slave, a term that is now being used to characterize her experience by some advocates on social media. Such sensationalist language is reductionist and obscures the complexities inherent in the experiences of young people in the sex trade and street economies. It is more helpful to turn to young women in the sex trade themselves for a better understanding of the terms they use to describe their own experiences.

Shira Hassan has worked with girls involved in the sex trade and street economies as the former co-director of the now defunct Chicago-based Young Women’s Empowerment Project. She defines the sex trade as “any way that girls are trading sex or sexuality, or forced to trade sex or sexuality, for anything like money, gifts, survival needs, documentation, places to stay, drugs.”

Survival sex and involvement in the sex trade are often the only means for young people to provide for themselves when they leave home. This is especially true for youth of color, queer and trans youth, who have less access to resources and opportunities. The realities faced by most teenagers engaged in survival sex are shaped by unsafe homes and housing, lack of access to employment, affordable housing, health care, including gender affirming health care, mental health resources, poverty, racism, queerphobia and misogyny.

The street economy, Hassan explained, encompasses “anything that you do for cash that’s not taxed. Whether that’s hair braiding, whether that’s selling CD’s on the corner, something that you’re gonna do that’s gonna get you money that isn’t reportable. Both of these methods are ways that girls have found to survive when they’re street-based.”

Trafficking, on the other hand, refers to any form of labor — including, but not limited to, sexual labor — by force, fraud or coercion. It’s true that there are young people who are trafficked and who experience extraordinary violence in the sex trade. But it is important not to assume that every young person who trades sex for money is trafficked, even if the law defines everyone under the age of 18 who trades sex as trafficked, regardless of their actual experience. Doing so ignores the complexity of their experiences — and does a disservice to them by denying them any agency or self-determination, including to define their own experiences and demand their own solutions. Their lives should not be flattened in the service of “perfect victim” narratives.

Cyntoia is not a cardboard cutout upon whom other adults can project their narratives of youth involvement in the sex trades. She is a young woman who has experienced horrible violence, but that is not all she is. She has her own story to tell, but by portraying her as a victim without agency, some of Cyntoia’s advocates make it more difficult for her story of self-defense, her fight to survive, and her resistance to violence to be respected. We need to find a way to describe all of her realities — both as a survivor of violence with the right to defend herself, and as a young woman who was doing her best to survive.

Will this renewed focus on Cyntoia serve to improve the lives of all young people in the sex trade and street economies? Or will the current attention and the framing of her as a victim of sex “slavery” or trafficking serve to further marginalize them by silencing their voices and complexities in service of pursuing a “perfect victim” narrative, one that Black women are routinely excluded from?

The consequences for young women who don’t fit the “perfect victim” narrative are significant — both in terms of being harshly punished for self-defense, or being framed as “traffickers” themselves and then threatened with long sentences under new laws ostensibly passed for their own protection. Even if not subjected to punishment by what we call “the criminal legal system” — because we believe there is no justice in this system — many of the new “trafficking” laws passed at the state level over the past decade may force them back into foster care and other systems that they have fled because of the harm they experienced. Or, coerce them into “treatment” that does nothing to address the conditions under which they entered the sex trade in the first place. If they don’t “comply” with what is expected of them as “perfect victims,” then they, like many other survivors of violence, find themselves caged in a cell instead of receiving the support they need and deserve.Prosecuting and incarcerating survivors of violence puts courts and prisons in the same punitive role as their abusers, which compounds and prolongs victims’ experience of ongoing trauma and abuse.

The push to keep Cyntoia a child is also troubling. Since the recent surge of interest in her case, graphic artists have created an image of Brown with the pigtails she donned during her trial, when she was 16, accompanied by the text, “Free Cyntoia.” Another image of her at a similar age has been appropriated into a meme, juxtaposed with the rapist Brock Turner’s mugshot, using her incorrect age, and unconfirmed case circumstances. Other memes have claimed a “paedophile sex trafficking ring” was responsible for the violence visited upon Cyntoia. Why are these images and memes being circulated? Is an adult, 29-year-old Black woman an unsympathetic victim? If so, why? Acknowledging trauma and resilience are often ignored in favor of the driving desire by the media and public to support only a perfect victim. Perfect victims are submissive, not aggressive; they don’t have histories of drug use or prior contact with the criminal legal system; and they are “innocent” and respectable.

The reality, however, is there are no perfect victims. Twenty-nine-year-old Cyntoia deserves to be free from prison and absolved of this “crime,” no less than 16 year-young Cyntoia should have been.

Cyntoia’s story, while tragic and unfair, is not exceptional. As we were writing this piece, Alisha Walker, another criminalized survivor, called us from Decatur Correctional Center, an Illinois prison where she has been incarcerated since March of this year (and, unless she is freed, will have to spend another 10 years). “She’s an amazing woman, so brave,” Alisha said of Cyntoia’s case. “Shit, she was 16? No one should be punished for enduring harm themselves. That girl was just doing what she had to do.”

Alisha Walker was just 19 years old when, in 2014, she was forced to defend herself and a friend from a violent client who demanded that they have unprotected sex with him and threatened them with rape and a knife. Alisha, like Cyntoia before her and so many before them, fought back. Her act of self-defense was met with the violence of a racist court system that branded her a manipulative criminal mastermind. Alisha and Cyntoia were both young Black women whose bodies were inscribed with inherent criminality and were, to some degree, presumed guilty until proven innocent. But the judicial system as currently constituted would and could not have allowed them to be seen as innocent. Instead, Cyntoia and Alisha’s radical acts of self-love and preservation were criminalized by those with authority; each had the carceral weight of racism and whorephobia stacked against them.

Courts historically mete out punishment disproportionate to the acts of self-defense by black women, femmes, and trans people. This criminalization of self-defense pre-date Cyntoia; we see this in the cases of survivors Lena Baker, Dessie Woods, and Rosa Lee Ingram for example. It has continued long after Cyntoia’s sentencing thirteen years ago. We see this same disproportionate punishment in the more recent cases of GiGi Thomas, CeCe McDonald, and Ky Peterson. And these are just the names and stories that we know; there are many others that never grab headlines or inspire social media or grassroots defense campaigns.

Let’s #FreeCyntoiaBrown — not only from the cage she has unjustly been held in for the past 13 years for fighting for her life, but also from narratives that take away her agency and police and control what it means to be survivor of violence. And let’s do the same for all young people in the sex trade, and all survivors of violence. In the words of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, “Social justice for girls and young women in the sex trade means having the power to make all of the decisions about our own bodies and lives without policing, punishment, or violence…We are not the problem — we are the solution.”

Mariame Kaba is an organizer, educator & curator who founded & directs Project NIA and is a co-founder of Survived & Punished among other projects and organizations. Brit Schulte is a community organizer, member of the Justice for Alisha Walker defense campaign, and underemployed art historian currently based in Brooklyn. This commentary reflects the opinions and views of the writers and not necessarily those of In Justice Today.

Will the Most Controversial Rule of Evidence be Reformed?

Will the Most Controversial Rule of Evidence be Reformed?

To most, the Federal Rules of Evidence may seem esoteric. But how the rules draw evidentiary boundaries between admissible and inadmissible information matters quite a bit, both for litigants and for our justice system.

Federal Rule of Evidence 609 is a case in point.

Rule 609 allows attorneys to impeach criminal defendants (and other witnesses) with their convictions: to inform the jury, in other words, about these convictions for the asserted purpose of challenging the witness’s truthfulness. This form of impeachment has been called a “charade,” a “hoax,” “discriminatory and unfair,” and critics have urged its reform or abolition since its enactment in 1975. And yet, this rule has persisted, without significant alteration.

Change may be afoot. Timothy Rice, a Magistrate Judge from Philadelphia, published a law review article this year. He proposed that because of a change in societal understanding of crime, the amount of prior conviction impeachment that the federal system tolerates should be significantly reduced. He submitted the same idea to the Advisory Committee that evaluates potential changes to the Federal Rules of Evidence. The Committee is now considering the proposal.

The societal change that Judge Rice invokes is the restorative justice movement, which he describes as having a goal of “healing within the broader community impacted by crime.” The significant reduction that he proposes is that one of the two types of conviction currently admissible become inadmissible. The first category that is currently admissible consists of “crimina falsi” (roughly speaking, convictions relating to “dishonesty or false statement”); indeed, currently these must be admitted, no matter the prejudice that they inflict. Judge Rice would leave this category of impeachment material untouched. The second category consists of felony convictions (other than “crimina falsi”), which are currently admissible subject to judicial balancing. Judge Rice would abolish this category. How can one heal within the broader community, he asks, if one is dehumanized, stigmatized, punished a second time, and stereotyped as having a propensity to lie?

Judge Rice has done valuable work in prompting the Advisory Committee to address this issue. And with his focus on restorative justice he has accomplished the admirable feat of finding a new objection to prior conviction impeachment. It seemed there was little left to say once scholars had explored a whole range of other problems: the tension between this form of impeachment and the social science relating to truth telling; the racial and economic disparity in impact; the chilling of defendants from exercising their right to testify; the shaky embedded assumptions about the reliability and meaning of criminal convictions; the fact (explored in various empirical studies) that jurors reject the use of this evidence for its only permitted purpose, and embrace it for inflammatory and forbidden ones; and so on. Finally, in making the point that this practice involves the embedding of stereotypes into legal decision-making, his work hints at a gap between this area of the law and those in which efforts are being made to challenge stereotypes in legal decision-making. (See, for example, recent efforts to inform juries about implicit bias.)

However, it remains unclear how much Judge Rice’s restorative justice focus can achieve. First, in writing up the proposal for the Committee, the Reporter describes this as an “interesting” angle, but questions whether restorative justice is indeed as much of a movement as Judge Rice (who created a reentry program) might wish. If we really cared about restorative justice, for example, would we still permit felony-based disenfranchisement in 48 states? Second, restorative justice objections, like all of the other types of objection mentioned above, apply not only to the impeachment that Judge Rice would bar, but also to the “crimina falsi” impeachment that he would leave untouched. (And indeed the latter category of convictions has a claim to being the more problematic, in that they are mandatorily admissible.)

For those who have considered change to this rule but think that prohibiting the use of felony convictions is not enough, three states provide evidence that abolition can be feasible. Montana prohibits all forms of prior conviction impeachment (as regards all witnesses), and has done so for forty years. Hawaii and Kansas protect criminal defendants from prior conviction impeachment of all types (as long as they do not open the door to it), and have done so for decades.

The Reporter has promised that if the Committee wants to take this idea further, he will conduct research into the handful of states that reject impeachment with convictions that are not “dishonesty-based,” to see “how these rules are being applied and how practice is affected.” Since such states include those that have barred prior conviction impeachment altogether, for some or all witnesses, this is a valuable opportunity to consider not only restriction of this practice, but abolition.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article described Judge Rice as “persuading” the Advisory Committee to address this issue. At the request of the author, we have changed that sentence to note that Judge Rice “prompted” the Committee’s action.

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Jay-Z, Meek Mill Friends to 21,000 Concert Fans: Vote for Judges, Prosecutors, and Councilmen Who Want CJ Reform

“We have the power to replace these people.”

Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images

Jay-Z, Meek Mill Friends to 21,000 Concert Fans: Vote for Judges, Prosecutors, and Councilmen Who Want CJ Reform

“We have the power to replace these people.”

Rap star and cultural icon Jay-Z paused for a moment during his concert on the evening of December 1 to deliver a plea for criminal justice reform. As spotlight-soaked mist rose around him, he leaned into his microphone to talk about police brutality, racial oppression, and, of course, his friend and fellow rap artist, Meek Mill — a Philadelphia native who was recently sentenced to up to four years in prison for a probation violation. “When you see a young man get on probation, get f — — — in the ass since he was 19 years old, that man is being stomped by the system,” he said. “It’s a human issue, a human issue. Not a black and white issue, a human issue.” The crowd was mostly quiet, a rare moment during the lively show, though a small choir of concertgoers called out: “Free Meek!”

Meek Mill’s recent sentence has ignited protests locally with reverberations felt across the country. Here, images of the rapper adorn the side of public busses, billboards, and posters hung on street corners with messages to free or stand with him. Jay-Z’s monologue to the 21,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center last Friday night continues his recent use of the bully pulpit to bring public attention to the case and to the larger issue of probation — an arm of the criminal justice system often overlooked in discussions about mass incarceration. Two weeks ago, he penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times. He wrote:

“On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started. But consider this: Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence. Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.”

About 4.7 million American adults — or one in 52 — are either on probation or parole. This is about twice as many as are incarcerated. The number of people on parole, as Mill was, tripled between 1980 and 2007 to about 826,000. In Philadelphia, about half of those held in the city’s woefully overcrowded jails are locked up because of probation violations.

During his short speech to the packed theater, Jay-Z also expressed support for the NFL players who refuse to sing the national anthem in protest of racial oppression. “Don’t let the press confuse you. This is not about a flag or something inanimate. That shit is about injustice, that shit is about people dying,” he said. He then called his African American fans to action. “Black people in particular, we got to get our shit together, we got to start working together. We come to the table because we ain’t no second-class citizens to anybody. We are the most beautiful, most intelligent people in the world.”

About 200 local criminal justice reform organizers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and loved ones of Meek Mill, were in the audience. They were brought together by the justice reform organizations #cut50 and Color of Change, as well as by Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation and his label, Roc Nation.

Sixx King grew up with Meek Mill’s father, and has known the rap star since he was born. The film producer says he’s hopeful that the attention his friend’s case has garnered, bolstered by Jay-Z’s platform, will make a lasting impact. “The local and national politicians have relied on the ignorance of young people not knowing their political power. I think with Meek being incarcerated has awakened the masses, the youth,” he said. He believes that Meek’s case has served as a civics lesson to his fans. “The majority of people out there didn’t realize that judges were elected — they thought it was an appointment.” But the attention on Judge Genece Brinkley, who Mill’s supporters and his defense attorney believe set the harsh sentence out of a personal vendetta, changed that perception, in King’s view. “I think this puts politicians on notice that they can no longer use their elected office as a throne for tyranny,” he said. “Felons can vote. Young people can vote. We can vote people in and out of office who make this decision that impact our lives: Judges, prosecutors, congressmen, councilmen, governors, lieutenant governors. We have the power to replace these people.”

Philadelphia proved to be fertile ground for this type of mobilization when, one day after Mill was sentenced, voters elected a District Attorney who ran on a campaign to reduce incarceration. (The election was not swayed by Mill’s case — months of grassroots activism propelled the candidate.)

Over a decade ago, King himself spent a few months in jail — including two weeks triple-celled with Mill’s cousin, during which they were only allowed to leave for one hour a day — followed by seven years on probation for gun and drug charges. “It changes you. One night in prison changes you, for the worse,” he said.

Another longtime friend of Mill in attendance, Dawud Bey, told me that he’s glad that Jay-Z is grandstanding, but wishes the mogul would also focus on tangible ways to mend the plight of neighborhoods like the one where he and Mill grew up in North Philadelphia. There, job opportunities are limited and many have a criminal record. “I’d like him to infuse economic development in impoverished communities; to create jobs for guys who don’t have a chance, who can’t even get a bank loan to try and start their own business because of their record,” he said.

Bey’s sentiment highlights an inescapable inequity of the Free Meek Millmovement: millions of Americans face similar limitations imposed by the criminal justice system, but lack Mill’s fame. Further, some critics argue that Mill has been cavalier with the court over the years, believing himself to be above the law because of his celebrity status. The recent charge was his fifth probation violation; the others were mostly for traveling out of state without court approval and missing appointments with his parole officer.

But, King argues, the moment is bigger than Mill’s case. “There is always the question, ‘Why Meek?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ History has taught us we can’t judge or predict what the catalyst of change looks like,” he said. “Whatever we use as a catalyst of change to awaken masses of people, young people, to their political power is amazing. We’re going to rock the nation not only with music — we’re going to rock the nation with political activism; we’re going to rock the nation with appointing people who are not self-serving.”

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