** Original article published on The Tennessean.
Lawyers for Cyntoia Brown, a Nashville woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder committed at age 16 and whose cause has been championed by celebrities including Rihanna, have filed an appeal in federal court challenging her sentence.
Brown's lawyers are asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to weigh the constitutionality of her life sentence and to consider whether Brown is actually innocent because she lacked the sufficient mental capacity for a murder conviction at the time of the crime.
Brown, now 29, has been serving a life sentence at the Tennessee Prison for Women for the 2004 murder of Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen, 43.
Brown was forced into prostitution by her pimp, she said. Allen had picked Brown up at an East Nashville fast food restaurant, took her to his home and got into bed naked with her. Brown shot him in the back of his head, saying she feared for her life, then fled with his car, money and guns.
Under Tennessee law, she will not have a chance for parole until she has served 51 years.
Cyntoia Brown is serving a life sentence for the murder of a man in 2004, when she was just 16. (Photo: Submitted)
Last month, scores of celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West took to social media to highlight Brown's case as an example of sex trafficking of children and advocated for her release. The celebrities' millions of followers amplified the call and the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown earned hundreds of thousands of re-tweets.
In late December, Brown's lawyers formally filed a petition with the state's board of parole seeking for Brown's sentence to be commuted. Her lawyers said they ultimately hope Gov. Bill Haslam will grant Brown clemency.
All Brown's previous appeals have been denied.
In Monday's petition to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Brown's lawyers cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a sentence of life imprisonment for juveniles is unconstitutional. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has already ruled against that argument, noting that Brown's sentence is not entirely for life. She will have the possibility of parole after 51 years.
In their appeal, Brown's lawyers, who include Nashville attorney Charles Bone, argued that Brown may not survive until her parole hearing at age 69 and that the Supreme Court had directed states to provide "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release."
"The half-century wait before Cyntoia Brown has a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate her 'maturity and rehabilitation' is insufficient to satisfy the minimum constitutional requirement mandated by the Supreme Court," the appeals said.
Brown's lawyers also argued that Brown didn't have the mental state necessary to be culpable for murder.
Experts who testified in Brown's sentencing hearing noted she may have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder in utero, impairing her mental abilities.
"This was a seriously mentally impaired girl, subject to the immaturity and impulsiveness of all juveniles but to a much greater degree, who had been abandoned by her parents and whose only refuge was a pimp who sexually and physically abused her," the appeal said.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General, which will defend the case, said she was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
The state's response is due Feb. 7.
A joint project on juvenile sentencing laws in Tennessee by the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee,Daniel H. Birman Productions and "Independent Lens," a PBS series presented by ITVS highlighted Brown's story. Birman in a 2011 documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story, explored Brown's trial and conviction in depth.
Reach Anita Wadhwani at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.