News: “Was Cyntoia Brown sentenced to life for self-defense? Nope.”

A lot of people have been forwarding me articles about Cyntoia Brown, a then 16-year-old prostitute who was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. Recent news coverage includes this very sympathetic piece from CNN and another from NPR, as well as a deluge of similarly sympathetic coverage from a wide variety of other sources.

Brown argued self-defense at her trail, but was unsuccessful, and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. She will first be eligible for parole after serving 51 years of her sentence.

It seems Ms. Brown has been getting a great deal of attention in recent years, including a full-blown documentary, a social media campaign (#FreeCyntoiaBrown), and support from such people I guess I’m supposed to know as Rihanna, and Snoop Dogg, and Kim Kardashian West:

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This attention reached a crescendo last week when the Tennessee supreme court unanimously affirmed Ms. Brown’s conviction and life sentence.

The case is a combination of arguably legitimate public policy issues—such as, should a 16-year-old be subject to a life sentence, even for murder?—and social hysteria nonsense—such as, victims of sex trafficking (which I guess means prostitutes) should be immunized not just against minor offenses such as truancy and underage drinking, but also murder.

I’m sure reasonable people could take opposing positions on all those issues.

What this case is not, however, is a self-defense case. Given that my claimed area of expertise is use-of-force law, not generalized public policy, that leaves me with little to share on this case.  Well, except for the following truth not being reported at all by the mainstream media coverage of Ms. Brown's travails.

How do we know this isn’t a self-defense case? Because even Ms. Brown is not appealing on the basis of self-defense. Her only basis for appeal, both at the state level and the Federal level, is essentially that her sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Period.

There’s a reason she’s not appealing on the basis of self-defense: Her claim of self-defense sucks, based on the uncontested facts in this case. To quote the undisputed facts from the 2014 decision of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in her case (the state’s mid-level appellate court for criminal matters):

The nude victim was lying face-down on the bed in a large pool of blood, and his "hands were beneath his face, his fingers 'kind of partially interlocked,'" as if he had been sleeping.  An autopsy revealed that he had been shot in the back of the head and that he did not have any defensive wounds.  In the early morning hours of August 8, 2004, officers found the victim's white pickup truck in a Walmart parking lot and arrested the Petitioner at a nearby hotel.

How about Ms. Brown’s own narrative of “self-defense,” quoting from the same decision?

The Petitioner waived her Miranda rights and gave a statement to police in which she said that on the night of August 6, 2004, she was walking near a Sonic Drive-In when the victim, whom she did not know, picked her up in his truck.  He drove her to the Sonic, they ordered food, and the victim offered to let her spend the night at his home. The Petitioner accepted the victim's offer, and they went to his house.  There, the victim showed the Petitioner some guns, and they got into bed together. The victim whispered to and touched the Petitioner and reached underneath the bed. The Petitioner thought the victim was reaching for a gun, so she pulled a .40 caliber handgun out of her purse and shot him.  She took money out of the victim's wallet and two of his guns, drove his truck to the Walmart parking lot, and had someone drive her to the hotel where she was later arrested. The Petitioner denied that she was a prostitute or that she had sex with the victim.

I note that on appeal Ms. Brown no longer denies she was a prostitute, but in contrast claims the status of a prostitute and a victim of sex trafficking.

Folks, if you shoot someone, then steal their wallet, guns, and car, flee the scene for purposes other than safety, and never contact authorities to report the shooting, it’s not going to look like self-defense to much of anybody. That’s especially true when the victim is found with his fingers laced, in a position of apparent sleep, and with a gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Incidentally, I’ve seen these undisputed facts of Ms. Brown’s case recited in absolutely zero of the media reports advocating for her cause. Shocking, I know.

Well, those undisputed facts didn’t sound like self-defense to the trial jury, either:

The Petitioner was tried as an adult, and the jury rejected her claim of self-defense, finding her guilty of first degree premeditated murder, first degree felony murder, and especially aggravated robbery, a Class A felony.

So, whatever this case might be—and it could be lots of things—it’s simply not a self-defense case, and thus not something I plan to cover in any further depth than in this post. 

--Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca  
Law of Self Defense LLC

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