A divided state board of parole sent no clear message to Gov. Bill Haslam on whether he should grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a Nashville woman serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in 2004 at age 16.
The six-member panel split three ways on their recommendations to the governor. Two voted to recommend that the governor grant clemency, allowing for her release from prison. Two members voted to recommend that Haslam deny her clemency bid, meaning she would continue to serve a life sentence.
Two members recommended the governor reduce her current sentence of life in prison to twenty-five years, meaning Brown could continue to serve an additional 11 years in prison.
It will be up to Gov. Bill Haslam to accept or reject their recommendation. Haslam, in his second term as governor, has thus far not granted any bids for clemency, but it is not uncommon in Tennessee for governors to grant pardons shortly before they exit office.
The recommendations came at the end of an emotional three-and-one-half hour hearing Wednesday at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.
Brown, now 30, confessed to shooting real estate agent Johnny Allen, 43, after he picked her up at an east Nashville Sonic Drive-In. Allen was a stranger and Brown, who had run away from home, was living in a hotel with a man whom, she said, forced her into prostitution.
Concerned that a teenager had been convicted in an adult court and sentenced to life in prison, lawyers appealed Cyntoia Brown's murder conviction in 2011. They argued in a Nashville court that Cyntoia was herself a victim. Produced by Daniel H. Birman and Independent Lens
Prosecutors said she committed a cold blooded murder, then robbed Allen before she fled with his car. Advocates for Brown have said she was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life while with Allen.
Under Tennessee law, Brown's sentence came with a mandatory 51 years behind bars before being eligible for parole.
At Wednesday's hearing Brown sat in prison-issued blue jeans and a t-shirt addressing the six-member panel.
She apologized for the crime, acknowledging friends of Allen seated only a few feet to her left.
"There are people here today and they are hurting 14 years later and I did that and I can't fix that. I can't fix that," Brown said.
"I am a changed person because I had no choice but to be," she said. "If I were to get out today it would still be the same. There would still be something I've done that I can't undo."
But, Brown said, she would use the opportunity for freedom to reach out to other troubled teens.
Brown has amassed a committed group of backers including prominent Nashville attorneys, youth advocates and even vicim's advocate groups. They took turns testifying about the transformation undergone by Brown in prison where she has earned an associates degree, mentored other prisoners and even volunteered to counsel teens in the city's juvenile justice system by participating in their classes via speaker home.
But a handful of those present were there to speak on behalf of Allen, the victim. Had he lived, he would be 57 years old.
In recent years, Brown's case has garnered international attention. Brown was featured in the documentary "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story" by filmmaker Dan Birman. In 2016, a joint reporting project on juvenile sentencing laws by the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, Dan H. Birman Productions and "Independent Lens" explored Brown's trial and conviction in depth.
Last year, that attention gained further momentum after celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West called for Brown's release. On social media, the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral.
Anna Whaley, a longtime friend of Allen's said his story has been lost in all the attention focused on Brown.
"Johnny has a voice and Johnny's family has a voice," she said. "Johnny's voice has not been heard in all these years. I want to say Johnny's life mattered."
"Cyntoia went out that night with a loaded gun in her purse and that was the gun she used to kill Johnny," Whaley said. "She robbed Johnny after she shot him in the back of the head,
Allen, she said, 'did not pay her (Brown) for sex and there is no proof Johnny picked her up for sex. All we know is that Johnny offered her food....We know for sure that she shot him."
Allen's father suffered a heart attack and died two weeks after his murder.
"Cyntoia is responsible for two lives," she said.
The parole board's recommendation is not binding. Haslam has previously said he was "aware" of Brown's case but has not indicated whether he will grant her attorney's request to commute her first degree sentence to a second degree sentence, which would pave the way for her release for time already served.
Separately, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is set to hear oral arguments on June 14 from lawyers for Brown challenging her sentence as unconstitutional. State attorneys defending Brown's sentence have argued her sentence does not contradict a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found life sentences for juveniles to be cruel and unusual punishment in most instances.
Brown's lawyers, led by Nashville attorney Charles Bone, have argued Brown did not have the mental state necessary to be culpable for murder.
More than a dozen juvenile advocacy groups filed a legal brief in support of Brown.
This story will be updated.
Reach Anita Wadhwani at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-259-8092 or on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.