Calling for Clemency

Emily Supple

At the inception of 2019, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee sent shock waves across the country when he declared clemency for Cyntoia Brown. Condemned to life in prison after killing a man who bought her for sex, Brown will be released in August, ending her 15 years behind bars. Brown’s case received some attention because of the 2011 PBS documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” and has been connected with the 2012 decision to no longer try minors for prostitution in the state of Tennessee. Brown’s case had faded into the background. It moved back into the public eye in 2017 when celebrities with sizable social media clout, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian took to the Twitterverse demanding #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Suddenly, Brown’s case went viral as supporters called for clemency for this victim of sex trafficking.

The facts of the case fueled widespread indignation regarding Brown’s predicament. On August 8th, 2004, police arrested 16-year-old Brown after finding the body the man that paid her for sex the night before dead from a gunshot. Soon after, the court tried Brown as an adult and charged her with first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery and sentenced her to life in prison. The court’s decision did not consider that Brown was a victim of sex trafficking and was forced into prostitution by her abusive pimp. Additionally, Brown’s claim of self-defense was rejected by the jury and her traumatic childhood and suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome was dismissed in the ruling.

Amid the resounding celebratory approval and gratification that justice had finally been afforded to Brown, it can be difficult to discern what exactly clemency means and how it works. Clemency is “an act of mercy or leniency providing relief from certain consequence of a criminal conviction,” according to Tennessee’s Board of Parole. Brown’s sentence was commuted, meaning that her long sentence was substituted for a shorter one.

Recent commutations by presidents include the release of Alice Marie Johnson by Trump and the 46 non-violent drug sentences reduced by Obama in 2015, which doubled the amount he had granted since taking office. However, the distinction between these examples and Brown’s case is important. Article II of the Constitution states that “The President . . . shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Thus, the President can grant clemency to federal offenses, but not to state-level appeals. The protocol of granting clemency differs between states, but it remains under the authority of the governor or their appointed board to handle such requests.

While states vary in their systems for processing applications for clemency, there is a trend that governors often hold out until the near end of their term to make such decisions. NPR reporter, Scott Neuman attributes these 11th-hour decisions to the fear of blowback since political scrutiny is likely reduced at the end of a term. This is because there have been circumstances where governors have granted clemency and released individuals who have committed additional atrocities, thereby risking their political futures.

Undoubtedly, there are some risks to granting clemency. However, it is concerning that many governors act in extreme or delayed manners when it comes to accepting applications. The fact that politicians can be incentivized to fear the potential demise of their political career over granting clemency to deserving applicants speaks volumes to the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system. As Brown prepares, deservingly so, to leave prison decades earlier than many believed possible, it is important that activists and students continue to fight for more reforms as this is only the beginning.