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At around 7:30 p.m. on the night after the murder, a Metro police officer entered Johnny Allen's house through the garage. He found Allen prone, his left arm propping him up slightly on his right side at the very edge of the bed, facing the wall. His body was partially covered with a floral print bedspread. His fingers were loosely intertwined, with the back of his right hand resting lightly against his forehead.
There was an entry wound in the back of his head and an exit wound in the front. The force of the gunshot had apparently dislodged Allen's hairpiece. The green pillowcase he was resting on had a powder burn about a foot from the back of his head. A great deal of blood had stained the side of the mattress and box springs, eventually pooling on the floor. In crime scene photos, it looks just a shade lighter than used motor oil.
Hours later, Reed and his roommate, Sam Humphrey, were watching the 10 o'clock news when a report aired about a homicide at a home near Bell Road. Reed was stunned, and he told Humphrey about the offer Cyntoia allegedly made that afternoon. Humphrey and Reed agreed it'd be safer to leave the InTown Suites for the night.
At around 1:20 a.m. the following morning, Detectives Charles Robinson and Derry Baltimore of the Metro Police Murder Squad pulled into the parking lot of the Compton Foodland off of Smith Springs Road to meet a young man who had information regarding the murder of Johnny Allen. Sam Humphrey told the detectives everything he knew, including where to find Cyntoia. Perhaps an hour later, the detectives arrived at the door of their room at InTown, flanked by six uniformed officers, guns drawn. The detectives hung back while the officers knocked on the door.
After a few moments, Cut answered and was pulled out and pinned down. Cyntoia rushed through the door in nothing but panties and a bra. "Cut didn't have nothin' to do with it," she cried. "I'll tell y'all everything."
Baltimore and Robinson sat Cyntoia down in a tiny interrogation room at around 3:30 a.m. Robinson was a large man wearing a dark shirt under a fleece vest. He had a close-cropped fade and thick arms. Baltimore looked even bigger in a baggy black T-shirt. Across from them, a slight Cyntoia looked painfully young, wearing a tight blouse that exposed her shoulders and a short skirt.
She was cold, and she pulled at the thin blouse, trying to cover bare skin. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She cradled her head on her crossed arms, looking tired. But when she began to speak, she sounded intoxicated. Slurred words poured from her mouth in an almost unpunctuated monotone. She was either drunk or going through cocaine withdrawal. Occasionally she placed her head directly on the table, as though she might fall asleep then and there.
She told them her name was Cyntoia Mitchell — her birth mother's maiden name — and gave a false birth date that made her 18 years old. The detectives read Cyntoia her Miranda rights, but when they got to the section where a suspect must affirm that no promises have been made by the police in return for a statement, confusion was evident on her face. "You're not sitting here and you're not promising me anything as far as helping me if I talk?" she asked. "But you just promised me that."
Robinson stammered, claiming he only assured her outside the view of the video camera that he'd tell the district attorney she was cooperative — not an uncommon promise. But Cyntoia appeared to be under the impression she'd get more than just a good word to the DA. Or at least she seemed to have a very literal understanding of what it all meant.
She read her Miranda rights back to the detectives, skipping the section about "promises." Moments later, she knocked her soft drink over, soaking the waiver and the table. She signed a new one and launched into her account of the night in question. Robinson and Baltimore weren't buying it. To the veteran detectives, Allen's recumbent attitude in the bed didn't suggest self-defense.
At some point early that morning, Cyntoia placed a call to Shocosha from a phone in the homicide unit. Several detectives — including celebrated unit chief Pat Postiglione, one of the men who brought down Perry March and Marcia Trimble's killer Jerome Barrett — heard the conversation. "I killed a man, and they're charging me with murder!" she said. "I'm serious. I did."
What struck the detectives wasn't frightened sobbing. The girl was laughing.
As she was booked, a deputy couldn't help but notice that Cyntoia looked listless, disconnected. Her speech was slurred. She seemed "nonchalant," the deputy in booking later testified. Shortly after they ran her fingerprints, detectives discovered her real name and age.
Less than a week later, Cyntoia was transported to Bolivar, Tenn., to the Western Mental Health Institute for an evaluation. She became a nightmare patient. In a single day, she flew into a tantrum and tore down a light fixture and air-conditioning vent, requiring what's known as a four-point — every limb secured — and a dose of Thorazine. Then she attacked a nurse when she was refused a call to Ellenette.
"I shot that man in the back of the head," she allegedly screamed, "and bitch, I'm gonna shoot you three times in the back of the head and would love to see your blood splatter on the wall."
It was the sort of stream-of-consciousness rant with which any prosecutor could make hay.
Counselors at the institute suspected Cyntoia had borderline personality disorder, a severe psychological condition common among hospitalized psychiatric patients, most often women — though they cautioned that such a diagnosis couldn't be made until age 18 . It's characterized by wild mood swings, extreme impulsivity and paranoia. Someone with Cyntoia's condition might swing between idealizing someone and devaluing the relationship they shared — there was no middle ground — creating incredibly unstable personal connections. The risk factors read like the bullet points of Cyntoia's life: abandonment in childhood, poor communication in the family, a disrupted family life and sexual abuse.
As expected, they also found that she was very bright, with an IQ of 127 — placing her well within the 90th percentile. On paper, Cyntoia sounded hyper-capable, but she was a teenage case study on the difference between intelligence and mental stability.
Despite everything he'd done to her, Cut still loomed large in Cyntoia's mind. Her attorney, Kathy Evans, performed a common exercise with the girl: listing the pros and cons of her relationship with Cut. When she finished the list, Cyntoia found it lopsided. It was the first time she realized her relationship with Cut had only hurt her — that he'd never really loved her. Roughly seven months later, she found out he'd been shot to death in what appeared to be a drug-related dispute.
Even if she had begun to see her relationship with Cut through clear eyes, she had no such clarity about her current circumstances. At one point during her stay in Bolivar, she left a letter sitting out that she'd written to Ellenette. A nurse picked it up, only to find detailed instructions directing her adoptive mother to spring her from the relatively low-security institution. Written in the bubbly, looping hand you might expect to find in a girl's diary, it indicated a child who could not grasp the trouble she was in: "Hey Mama! How are you? I'm fine as I can get, locked up facing life. You know they're trying to give me the max. sentence? Suck ass!"
About a month later, Cyntoia was due before Judge Betty Green in juvenile court for a transfer hearing. It was one of the most important court proceedings she'd ever attend.
In Tennessee, when a minor commits a crime and is charged as a juvenile, she remains in the custody of the Department of Children's Services until her 19th birthday, after which the court loses its jurisdiction. But if she is tried as an adult, she faces the same procedures and penalties as any other criminal. Juveniles charged with murder are almost always transferred, facing trial as adults.
The stark choice for judges — between the out-by-19 sentence that's perceived as light for a murderer and the black-and-white justice of life in prison for a crime committed as an impressionable teen — reveals a fundamental inadequacy of the current system, one in effect promoted by a state legislature pleased with the status quo. Under the current system, nobody — not DCS, the district attorney or the juvenile judge — has any control over juveniles past their 19th birthdays. That leaves judges like Green with little choice but to transfer them.
"OK, I've got nothing I can do with this girl or this guy. She's committed a terrible crime," attorney Jim Todd, a former special prosecutor for violent juvenile offenders with the district attorney's office, says of defendants like Cyntoia. She "needs an extreme amount of work. DCS isn't gonna do it. So my only other option is to transfer her to [adult criminal court], and if she's found guilty there, [the Tennessee Department of Correction] will take her for the rest of her life. There is no in-between."
A compromise was proffered in 1999, when former Gov. Don Sundquist convened a commission — of which Todd was a member — that recommended a system known as blended sentencing. Instead of transferring juveniles to criminal court to be tried as adults, they'd be remanded to a secure facility and the juvenile judge would maintain an extended jurisdiction until the inmate's 24th birthday. Meanwhile, counseling and vocational training would be provided. If certain benchmarks were met, and the inmates truly applied themselves to personal development, they could be released while still young enough to reintegrate into society.
The concept recognized that you can't keep a kid in juvenile lockup until her 19th birthday and release her back to the very environment that created her. It was proposed as a way to transform juveniles in danger of becoming adult felons into law-abiding citizens. Rather than writing them off and locking them up for decades based on crimes they committed as impulsive, even malleable youths, the program amounted to a second chance — a program Preston Shipp says is the solution.
The state legislature balked at its price tag, however, and none of the commission's recommendations were implemented, Todd says. This was particularly shortsighted, since incarcerating the 20,000 Tennessee inmates in adult facilities in 2010 cost taxpayers roughly $1.26 million a day. And so kids like Cyntoia Brown find themselves on a scale, the safety of the public counterbalanced with a state agency's ability to rehabilitate juveniles when it can't keep them past their tumultuous teen years.
It's a scenario that plays out in Judge Green's courtroom with increasing frequency. In recent years, she's found herself transferring more and more juveniles to adult criminal court — 48 in 2006 and 70 in 2009 — as a consequence of repeated budget cuts to an already anemic state agency doing more and more with less and less. Interesting question: What percentage of Tennessee's current inmate population passed through the juvenile justice system as minors? Ask DCS, the state Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole. None of them will be able to tell you, because no one is tracking the only figure that might tell us if our efforts at course-correcting juveniles work at all.
Over the past few years, the terrain of the judicial landscape has undergone a series of seismic shifts regarding the punishment of juveniles. It began in 1988, when U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that no one under 16 could be executed. In 2005, the age was raised to 18. In May 2010, the justices ruled in a five-to-four split that life sentences for juveniles not convicted of murder were unconstitutional.
Currently, South Africa and Israel are the only other countries who sentence juveniles to life imprisonment. Even Somalia, not known as a bastion of civil rights, has fallen in line with the rest of the world. In his 2010 opinion, Supreme Court Judge Anthony Kennedy said "the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole is in itself a severe sanction, particularly for a young person."
An entire field of research has cropped up around the issue. Scientists have been examining the brains of juveniles and confirming what should be obvious — the regions of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control are poorly developed in someone Cyntoia's age. It makes little scientific sense to treat a 16-year-old girl the same way you would a 30-year-old woman. Opinions among legal scholars are split on the likelihood of life sentences for juveniles in general being ruled constitutional by the high court. But already, challenges are being heard in Missouri, Michigan and Iowa.
Still, the dilemma remains: How do you adequately punish someone who isn't a grown-up for a grown-up crime with irrevocable grown-up consequences? And even if they're capable of change, should such a person be allowed a chance at rehabilitation and redemption — let alone a shot at re-entering society? These were, and are, the questions facing Cyntoia Brown.
At the transfer hearing, Cyntoia sparred ably with prosecutor Jeff Burks. Burks worked to undermine her self-defense claim, suggesting that Allen couldn't possibly have moved into a laced-finger position after she shot him — that maybe he was even asleep. Cyntoia insisted he had moved. Round and round they went, advancing scenarios that were equally unprovable. Yet she proved to be a remarkably capable witness: argumentative, occasionally profane, an obvious product of the street — but deft nonetheless.
Dr. William Bernet of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital took the stand as well. He'd been retained by Kathy Evans, Cyntoia's attorney, within weeks of the shooting. After hours of interviews with the girl, he'd arrived at the same conclusion as the therapists at Bolivar: borderline personality disorder. But he went a step further, saying he didn't believe she'd waived her Miranda rights "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily," the three criteria that must be met for a waiver to be valid.
Cyntoia understood the words in a literal sense, he said, but she failed to comprehend what they meant in practice. Despite her intellect, she failed a test he administered that gauged her ability to understand her right against self-incrimination. For example, she was under the impression that she was supposed to talk to the police — that, in the end, it'd be better for her if she did. But that is rarely true in a case like hers.
Still, after a daylong hearing, Judge Green ultimately recommended that Cyntoia be tried as an adult. It was disappointing, but not unexpected, for Cyntoia and her attorney. The stakes were now much higher.
Meanwhile, Ellenette fretted on the phone with her daughter in a taped call entered into her court record. It wouldn't be long before Cyntoia would turn 18, eligible for transfer to an adult facility.
"I'll be worried about those grown women, you know, that's gonna be there," Ellenette said.
"Because they're bigger than me?" Cyntoia asked.
"Don't worry about me, Mommy, I probably will get beat up a lot. I'll probably get stabbed and everything. Just about everybody that goes to the penitentiary gets stabbed or gets their room set on fire."
"Um, hm, hm, hm, hm," Ellenette clucked. She chided her daughter for the fights she'd been getting into. Through 2004 and 2005, Cyntoia was the kind of inmate who gave prison guards night sweats. She was written up repeatedly for hitting, kicking, punching, spitting and threatening the guards.
Cyntoia changed the subject. She talked excitedly about the all-you-can-eat buffet she'd heard was at the adult facility during chow, and that Ellenette and Missy could send her care packages stuffed with bags of Doritos.
"I would like for you to have some kind of an adult life," Ellenette pressed. "That's all I'm saying."
"Now you understand why I'm so depressed and do the things I do, because I gotta think about that every day," Cyntoia said
"Me facing life."
"Right. Facing life is ignoring these people so you can have a life. At the rate you're going, you won't have a life," Ellenette said, referring to the assaults on staff.
"I probably won't have a life anyway, Ma. It don't matter how I behave. You don't understand what I did. I killed someone."
"I know you did."
"I executed him."
That statement was yet another prime example of how Cyntoia's mouth could end up costing her at trial. The young woman had a way of using language incongruously. But the weight of her predicament was finally beginning to settle on her shoulders. It's unlikely that any of that would matter to a jury — just one word.
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