What is the true story of Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story?

The new Netflix true crime documentary explores the case of a 16-year old who was convicted for murder but later granted clemency

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Netflix’s latest true crime documentary shines a light on the case of Cyntoia Brown – a Nashville woman who was convicted of murder at the age of just 16 in 2004, but who was granted clemency in 2019 after serving 15 years of her life sentence.

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The documentary paints a picture of Brown’s difficult childhood and highlights some perceived injustices about the original trial – including the fact that despite being under the age of 18, Brown was tried as an adult.

Here’s the true story behind Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Who is Cyntoia Brown?

Cyntoia was born in Kentucky in 1988 as Cyntoia Denise Mitchell. She was put up for adoption by her birth mother, Georgina Mitchell, at the age of two – with Mitchell reportedly unable to care for her daughter due to suffering with substance addiction. Mitchell had also reportedly drunk heavily during her pregnancy, which resulted in Cyntoia being born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder – a condition which can lead to impulsive behaviour and “a disconnect between thought and action”.

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In her early teens, Cyntoia found herself in trouble with the law on a number of occasions – spending time with Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services between April 2001 and September 2003 after committing “crimes against a person, and crimes against property”. After repeated attempts to flee, she eventually became a runaway and met Garion L. McGlothen – of whom she was a victim of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. McGlothen, known as Cut Throat, forced her into involuntary prostitution to pay for both of their bills.

What was she accused of?

On August 6, 2004 Cyntoia was reportedly approached for sex by 43-year-old Johnny Michael Allen, who offered to pay her $150. Later that night, police responded to an emergency call and found the body of Allen, who had been shot in the back of the head.

Cyntoia was charged with his murder, with prosecutors arguing that she had been motivated by robbery – although she always maintained that she had shot him in self-defence after he had become aggressive and had showed her his guns.

What happened at the original trial?

Despite being just 16 at the time of the case, Cyntoia faced an adult trial – after Metro Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green argued that it was too much of a risk to the community to keep her in the Juvenile Court System.

Cyntoia never denied having shot Allen, but claimed that she had saw him reaching for a gun as they lay in bed and had acted out of fear for her own safety – although during the trial police testified that no gun was found under or near the bed, while it was speculated that Allen may have been asleep when the shot was fired.

Along with other evidence – including the transcript of a phone call between Cyntoia and her adopted mother, in which she claimed “executed” Allen – this led to the 16-year-old being found guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery, which carried a life sentence.

When did the campaign to release her start?

Public attention was drawn to the case once again in 2011 when the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story aired on the American public broadcasting network PBS. The film drew attention to many aspects of the case which had previously been overlooked – including the need for juvenile justice reform, Cyntoia’s troubled childhood and the abuse that she had faced, and the prejudicial nature of the first trial which stemmed from Cyntoia being a woman of colour working in the sex.

The film attracted the attention of national attorney Charles Bone, who took on the case, representing her during an appeal in 2012 and going on to represent her pro-bono for twelve years until her eventual release.

In 2017, the case entered the international spotlight when Rihanna shared her support – leading to a slew of high-profile celebrities, including Lana Del Rey, Kim Kardashian and Cara Delevigne, coming out in support of Cyntoia. A public clemency hearing was held in 2018, with the board initially split on their decision.

When was Cyntoia Brown granted clemency?

After several witnesses – including her former prosecutor Preston Shipp and some prison employees – testified on her behalf at a public hearing, and with letters and phone calls having flooded the Governor’s office and social media, Cyntoia was eventually released from prison. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam stated: “Imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh.”

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Following the decision, in January 2019, Cyntoia said that she aimed to “live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” adding: “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

In prison, Cyntoia earned her high school equivalency diploma and an associate degree – while she has continued her education following her release. She also married musician and entrepreneur Jaime Long, and now goes by Cyntoia Brown Long.

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Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday 29th April