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Governor Under Mounting Pressure To Commute Life Sentence Of Cyntoia Brown

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. We want to catch you up on a story that's gotten attention for some time now among civil rights leaders and activists. A Nashville woman serving life in prison for a murder committed when she was 16 years old has also become a cause for high-profile celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna. Now, Tennessee's outgoing governor is deciding whether to pardon Cyntoia Brown.

As Natasha Senjanovic of member station WPLN tells us, Cyntoia Brown's case is compelling on many levels, its own unique and disturbing set of facts as well as what it says about how Tennessee and the country are changing.

NATASHA SENJANOVIC, BYLINE: In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was homeless when she killed a 43-year-old man who had paid to have sex with her. She was sentenced to life without parole, which in her case, means 51 years in prison before being eligible for release. But before calls to pardon Brown became a national talking point, it was being pushed by local lawmakers for years, including State Senator-elect Brenda Gilmore.

BRENDA GILMORE: She's already spent almost 15 years in prison. So we feel like she has served her time. She's done what we want people to do when they are in prison - to come out a changed person.

SENJANOVIC: While behind bars, Brown, who's African-American and now 30, has obtained one college degree and is working on another. She also mentors troubled youth in prison. Nevertheless, the lead detective in her original case this month urged Governor Bill Haslam not to grant clemency for what he still calls an unjustified murder. Brown's supporters say she acted in self-defense.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Clemency.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

SENJANOVIC: A recent proest led by Black Lives Matter shut down an education forum the governor was holding. It's not just activists, celebrities and lawmakers who want leniency because Brown had a troubled childhood. Sex trafficking expert Derri Smith says the fact that Brown was forced into prostitution would mean she'd be treated very differently by the courts today.

DERRI SMITH: It's interesting to look back at the original transcripts from Cyntoia's court case and see how peppered it was with that exact term - teen prostitute. That wouldn't happen today.

SENJANOVIC: Smith heads End Slavery Tennessee, which helps human trafficking victims. That's now the legal status of any minor picked up for prostitution in Tennessee, which means those kids are no longer treated as criminals. Smith says that's due to a much deeper understanding of the psychological and developmental effects of trauma on young people. Of course, Cyntoia Brown still committed murder, and attorneys cannot say what the outcome of her case would be if she were tried today. But Mark Stephens, who heads the Knoxville Public Defender's Office, says...

MARK STEPHENS: Today, I would think that you would expect the case to have a different disposition. You would hope that it would have a different disposition, but what it would exactly look like would depend on a number of variables.

SENJANOVIC: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled most juvenile life sentences without parole are unconstitutional. That's what Brown's attorneys are using to argue in a federal appeal for a reduced sentence and a clemency request to Governor Haslam.

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BILL HASLAM: The Cyntoia case has gotten a lot of publicity, understandably. But again, we want to make certain we're treating everybody fairly in this. And so we're doing our homework on a multitude of cases.

SENJANOVIC: Haslam says he'll make his decision on her case and several others before he leaves office next month. For NPR News, I'm Natasha Senjanovic in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.