Kim Kardashian and Cyntoia Brown: Should celebrities step in to free prisoners?
In August of 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown shot Johnny Allen in the back of the head. She killed him in his home, with her handgun, fleeing with his car and wallet. He had been a US Army veteran with a stable job whereas Brown was a delinquent with a history of criminality. On the surface, it might have looked like a brutal murder.
However, Cyntoia was born into a world of deprivation and abuse - from the repeated rape and violent attacks to the string of men, including Johnny Allen, with whom her pimp “Kut-Throat” forced her to have sex with. Stating that the gunshot was an act of self-defence, Nashville native Cyntoia Brown was nonetheless handed a formidable sentence. She would have been eligible for parole at the age of 67.
But it-girl and all-round celebrity superstar Kim Kardashian came to her aid. As well as publicly backing the campaign for a clemency hearing, she also enlisted a lawyer to help push this through the courts.
On Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Cynotia clemency - meaning she will now walk free this year. Kim Kardashian would be right to celebrate this considerable win. However, the “Queen of Clemency”, as some people are now calling her (or the “Princess of Prison Reform”, as I imagine no one is actually calling her) is said to be inundated with mail from inmates.
Sources close to Kim Kardashian are reported to have told TMZ that she is receiving an endless stream of communications from inmates who believe that she could also help them to get a clemency hearing.
This would appear to make sense. After all, celebrity intervention seems to have been key in this case, with other names such as Rihanna, Drake and LeBron James also rallying around Cyntoia Brown and putting immense pressure on Governor Bill Haslam.
Furthermore, just last year, Kim Kardashian helped release great grandmother and (notably non-violent) first-time drug offender Alice Johnson. A former FedEx employee, a divorce, a gambling addiction and the sudden loss of her youngest son created a tearful backstory. Just a week after Kim Kardashian met with Donald Trump to discuss the issue, Alice Johnson was pardoned.
The hardship Cyntoia Brown suffered in her youth cannot be overstated. Her mother drank alcohol during her pregnancy and used crack cocaine soon after. Brown spent time between the streets and Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services before meeting Kut-Throat. Having never known her father, he provided her a new direction in the form of sex work.
Repeatedly beaten and raped, she was on high alert when she believed 43-year-old Johnny Allen, a client, was reaching for a gun. In the state of Tennessee, had he engaged in sex with her, this would have been statutory rape. Many would therefore argue that Cynotia was a child sex slave.
To some extent, she owes her freedom to Kim Kardashian and the other public figures who came to her aid and, presumably, they believe they did the right thing. However, while the social media star continues to fight for those she feels have been wronged by the US legal system, others are worried about the “Kardashian effect”.
While celebrities may have huge platforms, they aren’t necessarily the best people to make a balanced, legal decision. The lucky few whose stories make it to the media mouthpiece may not be as innocent or as unjustly sentenced as their benefactors might believe. But their millions of fans often form something of an echo chamber - soon becoming a powerful force for change.
In Cyntoia Brown’s case, there are definitely arguments against the idea that she was acting in self-defence. Johnny Allen was found with his hands under his head, which gives credence to the idea that he was asleep when he was shot. Afterwards, Cyntoia left the scene in his Ford F-150 truck with his wallet, his cash and two of his firearms. She never came forward to police and was found with Garion “Kut-Throat” McGlothen in the nearby Intown Suites.
As for grandmother-turned-drug-dealer Alice Johnson, evidence showed that her Memphis narcotics operation had links to Colombian drug dealers based in Texas. US District Judge Julia Gibbons stated that Johnson was "the quintessential entrepreneur" in an operation that dealt in 2,000 to 3,000 kilograms of cocaine and had a "very significant" impact on the community.
Regardless of how justly they walk free, figures from the world of entertainment should not be our moral arbitrators. With a celebrity currently in charge of the country, it is all the more important that the value of truth is upheld.
Cyntoia Brown’s release date is set for this summer. Safe from her former abuser, who died following a shooting in 2005, she will rejoin society on 7 August.
For many people, her story is one of tragedy and triumph. For others, it’s a concerning reminder that we are living in an increasingly shallow world where influence and popularity are favoured over skill and expertise.