NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Cyntoia Brown-Long, now 31 years old, knows as much about life in prison as she does about being free.
At 16, she was arrested for robbing and killing a man she says picked her up for sex and later was sentenced to life in prison. But two months ago, Brown-Long walked out of a Tennessee prison after successfully petitioning the governor for her clemency.
Brown-Long’s story has mostly been framed by other people — attorneys, the makers of a documentary film and celebrities such as Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and LeBron James, who called for her release. Her case became a hashtag, sparking discussions about child trafficking and juvenile justice reform, and Netflix announced plans to release a documentary about her.
But now she’s speaking for herself in her memoir, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System,” released Tuesday, that goes deep into the patterns of sexual and drug abuse, predatory men and a childhood raised in the juvenile justice system.
“You’re kind of tethered to the worst moment of your life. And we’re so much more complex than that as human beings,” Brown-Long told The Associated Press. (She married her husband, Jamie Long, while in prison and now goes by the name of Brown-Long.)
Her birth mother has admitted drinking heavily while she was pregnant, which Brown-Long’s attorneys argued lead to her problems with anger as a young child. Although she was smart and had stability in her adoptive family, she lashed out at other children and teachers.
By age 13, she was in and out of juvenile facilities, often trying to run away from being held in custody. In her book, she describes a mostly segregated judicial system that punished her when she wouldn’t follow the rules but provided little academic or mental health support.
“I can’t recall a time where people at school or people in the court system actually listened to me and (asked) why I felt how I did,” Brown said.
She ran away to Nashville, where she said another girl taught her how to sell sex for money. She never told the men that she was just 15. Many initial media reports about Brown-Long called her a “teen prostitute.”
“They think, ‘Oh well, she made that choice and she was doing what she wanted to do,’” said Brown-Long. “There still needs to be more work done on coming to an understanding when it comes to domestic minor sex trafficking.”
Life got a lot worse when she met 24-year-old Kutthroat, or Kut for short. Brown-Long writes that she was forced to have sex in exchange for money; if she refused, she was raped, threatened or beaten. Sometimes she and Kut would rob men who came to have sex with her and she was often high, she writes.
Brown-Long said many years later, while she was in prison, she realized what sex trafficking actually looked like and how easy it was for men to prey on her.
“You’re taking these cues from your environment, from your friends, from the world around you that this is what you need to do to be accepted,” Brown-Long said. “You want a man to want you and you want to do what it takes to be accepted.”
Kut became increasingly violent and often threatened her with a gun, she said. In August 2004, he sent her out to get more money, and this is where Brown-Long’s story differs from the prosecutor and detective who handled the case.
Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, picked up Brown-Long at a drive-through and took her home to his house. At Allen’s house, Brown-Long said she began feeling afraid. Allen had shown her rifles he had in the house before they got into bed together.
Police found Allen nude in bed with a gunshot wound to the back of his head, his hands clasped together near his head as if he were sleeping.
Brown-Long told police Allen suddenly reached under the bed, and she thought he was grabbing a gun. She told police she had brought a gun with her and shot him in self-defense.
Metro Nashville police Detective Charles Robinson, one of the detectives who first interviewed Brown-Long in 2004, said her story “didn’t jive with what I saw in the crime scene, bottom line. And that’s how I knew she was lying.”
In the memoir, Brown-Long disputed that she didn’t shoot him to rob him, but evidence showed she took his truck, wallet and guns.
“The media has never really wanted to look at the facts of the case,” Robinson said. “They just took her word, or her people’s word, for what happened.”
Robinson said Brown-Long never implicated Kut in the murder and there was no evidence to charge him with any crime. Kutthroat was killed a few months after Brown-Long’s arrest. Jeff Burks, the original prosecutor in the case, said Brown-Long now wants to blame Kut as a trafficker who forced her actions.
“I considered her then, and now, that she operated as an independent agent doing what she wanted to do,” said Burks.
But Burks said he understands why courts and states have been reviewing juvenile sentencing laws. “I don’t oppose it,” Burks said. “I think there are some good ideas out there.”
Brown-Long had a long road to redemption in prison, but she found people and institutions who gave her opportunities to grow and learn from her mistakes. She earned an associate and bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University while in prison, her adoptive mother became her rock and she found her faith as a Christian.
At the same time she was asking for clemency, her story caught the attention of high-profile celebrities. “In terms of clemency, specifically with the governor, my attorneys were actually told that was not helping,” Brown-Long said.
Dozens of people wrote letters that said she was reformed, including an assistant attorney general who once argued against her in an appeals court. The Tennessee governor agreed, saying her sentence was too harsh and that she had “rebuilt her life.”
And for a woman who’d survived abusive relationships, she also opened her heart to love. Her husband, a singer, wrote her when she was in prison. After months of letters and calls, they were married over the phone in January.
“I never thought that I’d be coming out of prison a married woman,” Brown-Long said.
Since her release, she’s been doing community service, meeting with at-risk children and spending time at a transitional center for parolees. She’s in the process of starting a nonprofit organization and wants to advocate for legislation that would change how juveniles are sentenced.
“Everyone is capable of receiving redemption,” Brown-Long said. “God’s love is available for everyone.”
Brown-Long is now enjoying the simple things of life outside prison, like cooking her own food and texting. But now that she’s a got a platform, she wants to bring attention to juvenile cases like hers.
“I am not by myself,” Brown-Long said. “They are still facing time and that’s hard to think, ‘Well, why me?’ And I definitely believe that God has given me an opportunity to show people, to show legislators, to show the public that people can be given a second chance.”